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Hellebuyck, others wonder if NHL COVID protocol, pause is ‘overkill’

Hellebuyck, others wonder if NHL COVID protocol, pause is 'overkill'

ST. LOUIS, MO - FEBRUARY 6: Connor Hellebuyck #37 of the Winnipeg Jets makes a save against Ryan OReilly #90 of the St. Louis Blues at the Enterprise Center on February 6, 2020 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

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COVID prompted the NHL to postpone a slew of games lately, and extend the holiday break. Every indication is that the NHL is an official announcement from confirming that its players won’t participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics. It’s understandable, really, that Connor Hellebuyck and other NHL players feel restless.

Actually, Hellebuyck wonders if NHL COVID measures like the extended holiday pause might count as “overkill.”

“I can’t speak for everyone, but the feeling for myself … it’s a little overkill,” Hellebuyck told reporters in Winnipeg on Tuesday. “You see leagues like the NFL, who are adapting and, I think, doing things right.”

Judging from other comments, other NHL players and executives share Hellebuyck’s questions about the COVID pause, and protocols.

But does that make them right? Or, in floating the idea of “pushing through” these COVID disruptions, would the NHL risk repeating the same mistakes that keep the cycle going? Few answers are easy, or will make everyone happy.

Hellebuyck, ROR, Yzerman, others wonder if NHL should ease certain COVID protocols

Among others, Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman drummed up debate about how the NHL might handle COVID protocol and testing with comments from the weekend.

“I really don’t know what the right thing is. At the end of the day, I think — and now I’m getting political — but at the end of the day our players are testing positive with very little symptoms, if any symptoms at all,” Yzerman said.

“I don’t see it as a threat to their health at this point. I think you might take it a step further and question why are we even testing, for guys that have no symptoms.”

Earlier this week, Blues center Ryan O’Reilly voiced similar views as Yzerman and Hellebuyck. In ROR’s opinion, the NHL should administer COVID tests to players showing symptoms.

NFL, other leagues experimenting with different setups

Indeed, as Hellebuyck said, the NFL changed its testing policy. Via the NFL, they’re changing to “strategic, targeted spot testing.” NBA commissioner Adam Silver floats similar logic about their policies.

Rumblings about being asymptomatic haven’t been lost on the NHL. Consider some language from a Sunday press release.

Although there has been a recent increase in positive COVID test results among players, coaches and hockey staff, there have been a low number of positive cases that have resulted in concerning symptoms or serious illness. Therefore, the NHLPA’s and NHL’s medical experts have determined that, with virtually all Players and club hockey staff fully vaccinated, the need to temporarily shut down individual teams should continue to be made on a case-by-case basis.

Would the NHL go from that policy of shutting down individual teams on a “case-by-case basis” to testing players in selective ways? It sounds like some in the hockey world hope so.

Don’t forget players’ families, and other factors

Truly, it’s interesting that Hellebuyck voiced concerns about possible “overkill” with the NHL COVID protocols/pause while talking about the holidays.

After all, wouldn’t the holidays serve as a time where family would be front-of-mind? Unless players isolate from families entirely to push through an NHL season, they’re not just risking COVID outbreaks with their own teams; family members could also be exposed.

That’s where things get tricky.

[Details of COVID prompting extended NHL holiday pause]

Multiple outlets note that, as nice as it would be for omicron to be a milder COVID variant, it’s too early to be sure.

Rick Maese of the Washington Post reports that the NFL’s tweaks -- something Hellebuyck and others may seek for the NHL -- appear divisive to various experts.

“From an epidemiologist perspective, it’s not ideal,” said Zach Binney, a sports epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University. “But it’s nuanced.”

“Even if no one person is likely to have a bad outcome,” Binney said, “if omicron rips through the population very quickly, we’ll have a sharp upward curve in cases. Even if only a small percentage are severe, that could overwhelm at least locally already overtaxed health systems.”

If it’s true that COVID lingered because of “half-measures” (arguably ending lockdowns too hastily, insufficient vaccination rates), then an NHL drive to just push through things feels pretty ominous.

Maybe it’s simply not feasible to be as safe as humanly possible, and also to function as sport. Most who debate these topics would likely agree that these questions aren’t easy to answer, either way.

Here’s hoping the NHL makes the right calls more often than not. Even if it means protecting players, staff, and fans first, and putting matters like a full 82-game season second.

After a turbulent couple of weeks, it’s probably best not to expect a smooth ride.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.