As Capitals preach caution, NHL's COVID protocols try to keep up

Peter Laviolette

*"We have to do more," Lars Eller said on Saturday of the NHL's efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within its ranks. "I think we have to do more, whether it is testing or putting in measures that protect us without it disturbing our preparation and the game being played. So I think we have to do a little bit more and hopefully the decision-makers together can figure out what those measures are that we have to take.”

Eller's words certainly feel prescient now as two days later, the Capitals had two games against the Buffalo Sabres postponed. The day after that, Tuesday's game against the Philadelphia Flyers was postponed as well.

As of the time of writing, the NHL has postponed 35 games total after about a month of play, 50 players were on the NHL's COVID-19 protocol-related absence list on Wednesday and there have been times when the league seemed a step behind the virus such as in Tuesday's game when Vegas Golden Knights forward Tomas Nosek was pulled in the middle of a game due to a positive COVID test.

But ask the players and the coaches and they will tell you, they feel the league is doing everything it can to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

"I think everybody knew that it was going to be something that had to be managed on a daily basis based on things that might happen," Peter Laviolette said. "I think the league has done a good job to keep things moving. They've taken the appropriate steps to try to keep teams and players safe and we've got to continue to work at that. I think everybody knew going into this that this thing that could go in a left direction, in a right direction, back on the track and just keep moving so we've got to keep adjusting with it and keep ourselves flexible."


The defense of the NHL's efforts and safety protocols are not coming from a place of denial or because the coronavirus is not being taken seriously by the players. Far from it.

These are not young male athletes who see themselves as invincible and have little concern for the virus. These are men with families who are just as concerned about the coronavirus spreading to them as they are to teammates.

"I don't think I'll be making many trips to the grocery store or anything like that," said Sheary, who welcomed his first child on Saturday. "A lot of delivery coming up in the next couple of weeks."

"There’s definitely people that have suffered from this and families that have suffered from it," Oshie said, "So I completely understand where there needs to be a line and there needs to be a certain sense we’ve got to be very cautious about people and their families. I know it’s not just me. It’s my wife, Lauren. It’s my three kids, my father-in-law."

But this begs the question, can the league really be doing everything it can and there have still been significant outbreaks within several teams? The answer is not as black-and-white as it may seem.

Eller, who on Saturday stated he felt the league should be doing more, did not back down on Wednesday, but he did clarify what he meant.

"I don’t think anyone has done anything wrong per se," Eller said. "I think as this is evolving, we still see outbreaks within teams. It is a learning curve, right? I think we need to evolve maybe the protocols or how we protect ourselves inside buildings, probably more can be done than just masks and distancing because we are doing all those things and if that alone was enough, we wouldn’t be in this situation. I think the staff and the league has done a good job, especially back in the summer we were able to finish the playoffs and I think we did a good job here as well. I am not saying they haven’t. I just think it’s a fluid situation. There’s no playbook. Every country is doing it differently, every state is doing it differently. Some doctors think one thing, some doctors think another way is the right way so there is no right playbook, there is just learning along the way and adjust and adapt like anything else.”


The issue is not that the NHL is not doing everything it can, it is that the league must continue to evolve along with the virus. The health and safety protocols the league began the season with will need to be constantly tweaked to keep up with the spread of the virus or the protocols will quickly become outdated.

Download and subscribe to the Capitals Talk podcastThe good news is that we have already seen that evolution start to take place.

The New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres had a two-game series on Jan. 30 and 31. The first game was played and then, prior to the second on Jan. 31, Devils forward Kyle Palmieri was added to the protocol list after playing over 18 minutes the day before. Yet, the game on Jan. 31 was played as scheduled and soon after, both teams suffered large outbreaks of the coronavirus. Neither team has played since.

The Caps played the Flyers on Sunday. On Tuesday, two players who had played in Sunday's game were added to the protocol list. Rather than force both teams to play, the NHL instead elected to postpone the game thus avoiding a similar disaster to what happened with New Jersey and Buffalo.

Those are the kinds of decisions the league will have to continue making. The NHL cannot obsess over the original protocols or whatever precedents were set earlier in the season. The league will have to evolve with the virus if it hopes to stay ahead of it.

"I don't think it's catching anybody by surprise," Laviolette said. "I think everybody knows how dangerous [COVID-19] is. Our staff is doing everything. The medical staff, the doctors, our staff, we're doing everything we can to be the best that we can with regard to the COVID protocol. I don't think anybody has underestimated it and all of a sudden we're sitting here saying oh, this is bad. And so I think our guys, they understand it. We work every day to be compliant so that we're safe.


"There's things that change and so, again, this is change. You have to be adaptable and you have to continue to do different things inside of your locker room even now."