New Jersey Devils fans have been nervously biting their fingernails ever since general manager Tom Fitzgerald announced that the team harbored one single unvaccinated player, and that only intensified once reports surfaced that the player was a “prominent” one. Well, it’s official: the one Devil in question is budding goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood, and that’s not the best news for a young player (and team) that’s looking to have a resurgent season.
Heavy restrictions have been placed on unvaccinated players by the NHL this season, and Blackwood must now adhere to them unless he eventually gets the jab. Let’s break down exactly what that means and how it could affect the team this season.
Blackwood Will Miss Canadian Road Trips
Unvaccinated NHL players cannot cross the Unites States-Canada border, so that means the Thunder Bay, Ontario native in Blackwood would have to sit out every Devils road trip up north. Consequently, he’ll be subject to lose his pay for every day the team stays in Canada (unless he’s determined to have legitimate medical or religious reasoning for resisting the vaccine).
The Devils first head to Canada on Dec. 3 to play the Winnipeg Jets. NHL protocols dictate that a player must wait two weeks following the completion of his vaccination to cross the border, so the latest Blackwood could get the shot in order to travel with the team is the week of Nov. 14. New Jersey doesn’t return to Canada until the weekend of Jan. 15, where they’ll take on both the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs.
Unfortunately, six of the Devils’ final 23 games are going to be played in Canada. For a team that claims it wants to be playing in meaningful games this season, you’d have to think that being mathematically in playoff contention with 25 games left is part of the plan. If Blackwood still isn’t vaccinated by this potentially crucial point of the campaign, his absence could be the difference between a postseason berth and a run that came up just short.
New Jersey’s presumed backup is veteran goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who they signed this past offseason to a two-year contract.
Many Other Precautions Await Blackwood
In addition to issues with the border, Blackwood will be noticeably handicapped on other road trips this season. The new protocols call for unvaccinated players to be relegated to their hotels, practice facilities, and arenas when their teams are on the road; no bars, pools, restaurants, or gyms. Unvaccinated players also cannot have teammates or visitors in their hotel rooms.
Blackwood will also be prohibited from carpooling or using saunas with the team. Instead of being tested for COVID-19 every three days like those who took the vaccine, the unvaccinated must take one every day. The rules are plentiful but appropriate for a league that last season saw the troubles that a team-wide COVID outbreak brings. At one point in 2020-21, 25 players and coaches from the Vancouver Canucks contracted the virus, obviously putting the health of everyone involved at serious risk, but also derailing the carefully structured schedule of the league.
For the most part, the young Devils goaltender will have to spend a lot of time in isolation instead of with his teammates. At 24 years old, it likely won’t be easy, but he knows the rules and can change his decision at any point during the season.
Blackwood Will Be Under the Microscope
After two consecutive seasons where Blackwood’s save percentage and goals against average have worsened, the man many think to be the Devils’ goaltender of the future was going to be examined closely in 2021-22 anyway. Now, with his vaccination decision and the consequences that follow, the proverbial microscope over his head will be even bigger. Not only will the storyline of his much-needed bounce-back season be discussed, but the potential detriments his decision may bring to the team and himself will likely be at the forefront of the conversation.
Will Blackwood’s absence cost the Devils important points? Will he be a locker room distraction? How will he handle the isolation? How will New Jersey handle him, especially if he struggles?
They’re all valid questions, but ones we’ll have to wait until at least mid-October to have any semblance of an answer to. Of course, Blackwood still has time to make a decision concerning vaccination, and if the following quote provided by The Athletic staff writer Corey Masisak says anything, it’s that the goaltender’s decision is anything but final as of now.
Devils fans will just have to wait and see how this one unfolds.
Vincent Velotta is an NYC based freelance journalist who covers the New Jersey Devils for The Hockey Writers. He has covered sports and entertainment for a variety of outlets including the Village Voice, Minute Media, and more.