Because of the coronavirus, even when sports return not every player is going to return with it. As various leagues prepare to return to play, we are starting to hear of some players who have decided not to play such as Washington Nationals players Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross who have opted to sit out the 2020 MLB season. Seeing a pair of high-profile Washington players opt-out begs the question of whether any Capitals players could be considering making a similar choice.
NHL training camps are expected to begin on July 10. Health and safety protocols for the return of play still have to be agreed upon by the NHL and NHLPA, but it is expected that part of the agreement will allow players to opt-out of the playoffs if they have concerns over safety. Any players who do will have their decisions debated across all platforms as we try to figure out whether they owe it to the team to play or if deciding not to play means they are not a "team player."
For as much debate as we are likely to see if someone decides not to play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, in truth, there should be no debate. Any player who wants to sit out of the playoffs over health concerns should be free to do so without anyone judging them for their decision.
"I think to a certain extent, players are uncertain how they feel about it and how they can protect themselves, how they can protect their families," Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said in May.
First off, this is not likely to happen. While there are players who have voiced their concerns over the safety of returning to play, the hockey culture that is ingrained in these players is going to be tough to overcome. This is the belief that almost all of them have on the importance of showing toughness and commitment through actions like playing through injuries and never being a distraction. Plus, the NHL playoffs are a different circumstance than leagues like the MLB and NBA.
MLB has not even begun its regular season yet. No one is stepping away from their team on the eve of the playoffs in baseball. In the NBA, the league does not have nearly the same amount of parity as in the NHL. It may be nice to say that every team in the playoffs has a shot to win, no one following the NBA actually believes it. There are only a handful of true contenders and everyone knows it. Players on those non-contending teams may not want to risk coming back to play just to be cannon fodder for LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo.
It's different in hockey.
While it is practically unfathomable to think the Washington Wizards or Phoenix Suns could make a run and win the NBA championship this year, is it really that much of a stretch to believe the 24th-ranked Montreal Canadiens could go deep if Carey Price gets hot? Not really.
Improbable? Sure. Impossible? Not even close. Let's not forget, an expansion team made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2018 and the St. Louis Blues won in 2019 despite being in last place in January.
In hockey, the culture and the legitimate chance for a championship is going to mean most if not all of the players on remaining teams are going to play, including the Caps.
"I have not heard from any of our players in my discussions and texts or emails or whatever that any of them are going to not be returning to our team," head coach Todd Reirden said on June 15. He also added, "I would say that throughout the league there is a potential that some may not return."
OK, so what about those who don't? What if the safety protocols are released and a player decides that it's just not worth it? There are going to be plenty of people who criticize him. There are going to be people who decide he's not a team player. If Washington loses in the playoffs, there will be those who blame that player for stepping aside when the team needed him. It's a team sport, after all.
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"Team sport" is the key phrase here, but while some of you may be focused on the "team" part of that phrase, I'm focused on the "sport." Hockey is a sport.
Look, I love sports. It's why I do what I do. I eat, sleep and breathe sports, especially hockey. But at the end of the day, it's a game and it's not worth risking your health, or more importantly, your family's health if you're uncomfortable. No one should be looked down on for feeling that way. Yes, losing any player off the roster will be a tough loss for the Caps, but if a player has concerns about his family's health, that should be the priority.
The needs of a player's family should be more important to him than his teammates' chances of winning the Cup.
Capitals players are not faceless robots. They are not just avatars in a video game who only exist on the ice. They have lives and families outside of hockey. Many of the players have kids including several who were born just in the last few months. That should always be their top focus and for anyone who feels that playing hockey is not worth the risk to their family, that's their right.
But wait, isn't part of the appeal of hockey seeing players put their health on the line to push for that extra inch in the playoffs? Don't we celebrate when players battle through injuries? Isn't the broken nose game part of Alex Ovechkin's legacy? Don't we hear after the playoffs every year how many injuries players were dealing with throughout the postseason?
Yes, it's true. Every NHL player, and really every professional athlete, pushes through injuries at some point in their career. Whether or not this should be encouraged or glorified is a question for another day. In terms of debating what the difference is between that and the situation we find ourselves in this year is simple: You can't catch a broken leg.
No player is going to suffer a concussion and bring it home to his wife. No player is going to dislocate their shoulder and spread it to their newborn baby. No player is going to break their foot and spread it to their immunodeficient parents. That is the risk in 2020 that is different from all the other years before.
As of Monday,15 players tested by the league have tested positive for the coronavirus and an additional 11 have also tested positive away from Phase 2 protocol. Thankfully, there are no reports yet of any of these players suffering severe or life-threatening symptoms. As young, professional athletes, hockey players would certainly qualify as low risk. Having said that, it's not just about the players. That's been the tricky part of coronavirus. It's not just about the people who have it, it's about the people they can spread it to.
I am not advocating for the remainder of the season to be canceled. I believe if the NHL can put together a bubble that can adequately isolate the players and if the players adhere to all the safety protocols, I think there is a way to safely finish the season. Any players who don't feel that way, however, have every right to put their health and the health of his wife, kids, parents or other loved ones ahead of the sport.
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