NHL Relaxes Rules on COVID Protocol as Vaccinations Ramp Up

As the approaching NHL playoffs coincide with the ability for everyone 18 and older in America to receive their COVID-19 vaccine, American NHL clubs began and are still continuing the process of vaccinating their players, coaches, and other relevant team personnel. The relaxing of restrictions for fully vaccinated teams come playoff time means a return to quasi-normality, which also means a return to traditional routines.

Restrictions in Place

The COVID-19 safety rules were put in place by the National Hockey League at the beginning of the season. The protocol limited a team’s “travelling party” (i.e. those permitted on team-related travel, including players, coaches, and other staff) to 50 people. All players were required to “diligently wear face masks inside and outside of club facilities” as well as limit interactions with non-family members. The league also instituted an extremely rigorous testing system, with players being tested on a daily basis. Traded players or players on a team’s taxi squad were required to complete a minimum seven-day self-isolation, completed with the passing of multiple PCR diagnostic tests. Any player who was deemed non-compliant was subject to a ban from play, practice, and other team activities.

Gary Bettman
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The league’s protocol acted as a buffer for Canadian clubs, as they are also subject to federal and provincial COVID-19 rules. In addition to the league’s extensive system, players on Canadian teams are also required to abide by the relevant provincial and federal guidelines set out. In the case of the Montréal Canadiens, they are subject to the province of Québec’s curfew, prohibiting leaving dwellings after 9:30 P.M. (from “COVID-19: Québec annonce des assouplissements dans plusieurs régions.” Vincent Larin. Le Journal de Québec. 04/05/2021). The Canadiens have also already had a COVID-related delay.

Differing Vaccination Protocols

The NHL’s COVID-19 protocol is designed so that the league is able to keep players and other team personnel safe without compromising the integrity of the measures of the local, provincial, state, or federal governments. This means that teams looking to vaccinate players and staff are subject to the rules of the state or province in which the team plays. Canadian teams are subject to the rollout plans of the provinces, while American teams rely on the state and federal governments. According to the guidelines set in America, anyone over the age of 18 is now eligible to receive their vaccine. This means that all players on all American teams can receive their doses. Teams have already begun the process of vaccinating players.

Relaxing the Rules

As the vaccination campaigns ramp up, the NHL has already begun the process of relaxing the restrictions put in place earlier. In response to comments made by Vegas Golden Knights’ goaltender Robin Lehner, the league has crafted a policy that would allow fully vaccinated teams (i.e. teams that reach an 85% vaccination threshold) to engage in regular activities without having to adhere to the original COVID-19 protocol. Fully vaccinated in league terms is defined as any player two weeks after receiving the second dose of an approved vaccine.

Robin Lehner Vegas Golden Knights
Robin Lehner, Vegas Golden Knights (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Fully vaccinated individuals can increase gathering sizes, access public areas of team facilities without masks, and will not be required to physically distance around other fully vaccinated individuals. They are also permitted to dine indoors or outdoors at restaurants, enter hotel rooms of other fully vaccinated individuals, and will no longer require regular testing.

Return to Normal

The relaxation of COVID-19 rules for vaccinated teams comes as a welcome relief for playoff-bound teams. It will allow for the players to conduct business as usual, take their minds off of potentially contracting COVID-19, and contribute to a more relaxed atmosphere. Carolina Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour has said of the loosened restrictions:

“”It could be really big, I think, just for the mindset of the players, more than anything, to get back to some sort of normalcy. The playoffs are a grind, just like this season has been, so any type of getting your mind away from it by being around the guys I think will help.”

A return to normal for the NHL also means a return to normal for the players and coaches, which will translate to clearer heads and more focus, as well as allow for players to resume regular, non-COVID routines.

Better days are indeed ahead.