If there was going to be a league that went full fuck-up, it was always going to be the NHL. It’s not clear yet if the league is now home to the first team-to-team transmission of COVID-19, but there are some blinking red lights for sure.
To start at the beginning: The NHL has shut down the New Jersey Devils for the week, with 10 players on the team’s COVID protocol list. Mackenzie Blackwood and Travis Zajac were the first to go, and they did not travel to Buffalo for the Devils’ games against the Sabres this past weekend. Between Saturday and Sunday, Kyle Palmieiri joined the protocol list, and did not play in the second game of the team’s back-to-back. On Monday, four more players were added, forcing the team postponement of all games through at least Saturday for New Jersey. There’s clearly an outbreak among the Devils in some form.
It’s Palmieri in particular that has the Buffalo Sabres in an uproar, as their game against the Islanders tonight has been postponed. No word yet as to how many Sabres have gone into the protocol. But it’s at least odd that one player, Palmieri, played in one game against Buffalo just before he was pulled for the second. And then four more players on the Devils were added yesterday, and suddenly now the Sabres can’t play either.
What has the Sabres a little testy is that they asked the league for more information on why Palmieri had been pulled, whether it was a matter of contact tracing or if he indeed had tested positive, and apparently the Sabres didn’t get much of an answer. And now the league, which has just used this “protocol” as a vague catch-all both for players with positive tests and contact tracing concerns, might have a scenario where a positive player on one team played in a game, transmitted the virus, and now both teams are shut down. Those are the optics, at least, and they’re not good.
If this turns out to be the case, it would be the first known team-to-team COVID transmission in any of the four major sports. The NBA has shut down teams that have crossed paths thanks to contract tracing, such as Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum after the two had a postgame chat and Tatum later tested positive for COVID. Again, though, we don’t know who exactly has tested positive on either the Devils or Sabres. But simple contract tracing would seemingly paint a picture of exposure for most of the Devils’ and Sabres’ squads, just given the nature of hockey. They don’t have the space on benches that the NBA has been able to construct, and they don’t wear masks while sitting, either, so contact tracing could force out a large swath of the team as it has with the Devils, and the Hurricanes and Stars before them.
Either way, as we’ve said before, this is going to become something of a scheduling nightmare. The Devils only have one three-day stretch without a game for the rest of the season. Otherwise it’s just one or two-day breaks. But the Penguins don’t have the same breaks, so either they’ll just have to cram games in during shared off-days even if it results in three-in-four days, or three days in a row, or five in seven days or something equally ridiculous. Or they’ll have to rearrange games with other teams in some sort of shuffle like the NFL had to pull at times.
The scarier thing for all teams is the virus being able to jump from team to team, if that’s what has happened here. If that’s the case, the likelihood of the league getting through to the end of the season has dropped significantly.