All 16 teams that qualify for the NHL playoffs will be starting with the same clean slate. But the playing field is going to look, sound and feel a lot different depending on which side of the border the puck is dropping on.
Sweeping changes to COVID-19 protocols were announced this past weekend that will give many players, coaches and staff a lot more freedoms than they’ve experienced during the 56-game regular season. Relaxed mask-wearing and reduced testing, the ability for social gatherings away from the rink including at restaurants and hotel rooms, eating on planes and enjoying post-game buffets and holding team meetings in person rather than virtually are among the familiar benefits that can return.
The caveat is that an organization must have at least 85 per cent of its travelling party fully vaccinated (at least two weeks removed from the second dose) in order to qualify. Which is great news for the majority of the 12 U.S. teams that will be vying for the Stanley Cup, and much ado about nothing for the four Canadian clubs including the Winnipeg Jets.
“Very jealous,” Jets forward Andrew Copp admitted following Sunday’s practice at Bell MTS Place.
“If you look at my social media, Instagram, and Twitter, I see my family and my friends living a normal life right now. Very jealous of that. Happy for the guys in the States that are playing hockey to be able to live their lives as much as possible. With the new restrictions in Manitoba, there isn’t a whole lot you can do.”
U.S.-based players have been eligible for vaccines for quite some time, while the window is just finally starting to open in Canada. The Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, got their first doses on Sunday as they now qualify under existing Ontario rules. Other than 35-year-old Paul Stastny, along with the entire coaching staff, no members of the Jets are currently eligible, although that is expected to change in the coming days as the age limit quickly goes down.
“I’m happy for the teams down south. It’s been tough. Now that everyone else has relaxed their protocols, it’s good that if the league feels that percentage are safe, then by all means,” said Copp, who was part of the NHLPA committee that negotiated return-to-play terms with the league last fall.
It’s not just off the ice that will be different for U.S.-based players. All 12 teams are currently welcoming fans in their buildings, with some like Vegas closing in 50 per cent capacity. The Golden Knights had more than 7,500 fans, the biggest NHL crowd of the season, at a home game last week. There will be no fans here in Canada, with piped-in noise in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal continuing for the foreseeable future.
“A tad jealous. But we understand the situation. You see with them what’s expected to get them to be able to open some of the policies and relax some of the protocols. We totally understand it. There’s different situations and different rollouts in the States and in Canada, so it’s one of those things, we’re being patient, we’re waiting and hopefully we can get fully vaccinated or get to that number if guys so choose, and maybe we can enjoy some of those relaxed protocols,” said Adam Lowry, Winnipeg’s NHLPA player rep.
“I know (we’re) going into lockdown in Manitoba again here, and Alberta and Ontario and the other provinces, it doesn’t seem like if the protocols were relaxed that we’d enjoy any of the benefits right now. So we’re just going to do our part, be patient and hope that day comes sooner than later.”
The two most recent COVID-19 outbreaks in the NHL happened in Vancouver and Montreal, and the league isn’t about to take any risks with the troubling number of variant cases being seen and most players still not vaccinated.
“I can’t hold a grudge against somebody doing something that might make them healthier. I don’t see another way around it. Like if you’ve got an entire vaccinated team, we believe that’s a really good thing. It’s good for the community they live in, it’s good for the players, it’s a good thing,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice.
“I mean, in a perfect world we’d all be on the same circumstances but that would be a real positive thing, everybody would have the opportunity to be vaccinated and be safer, right?”
Copp was asked what he’s looking forward to the most when the time here eventually arrives.
“Where do I start? That’s a tough question. This answer could take the rest of the day. Obviously getting together outside of the rink with your teammates was always great to do. You become closer. Families become closer. That’s a part that stinks,” he said.
“The worst part for me is seeing my friends and family back home living their lives somewhat normally as opposed to what we’re doing here. It is what it is. We’re fighting to make a playoff spot and we’re fortunate in our circumstances, but yeah, I could go on.”
Once a North Division champion is crowned following the first two rounds of the playoffs, a decision will have to be made about where that team plays next. If cross-border travel is still not allowed, the belief is they would relocate to an American city for the duration.
So does it give U.S. teams a potential advantage over their northern neighbours?
“We aren’t going to play at 7 o’clock Manitoba time (due to expected TV broadcast wishes), and to me that’s a bigger disadvantage that I’d like to see get levelled out. But the health one, for me, whatever they can do to be healthy they should do,” said Maurice.
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