“A breath of fresh air”: NHL players, coaches welcome league’s new COVID-19 protocols

Morning nasal swabs have been routine for NHL players in recent months — and it’s a regime many are eager to leave behind.

The league updated its COVID-19 protocol on Monday, dropping daily testing requirements for fully vaccinated players, citing a “declining positivity rate.”

Vancouver Canucks coach Bruce Boudreau said the change is long overdue.

“I’m glad they’re doing what they’re doing,” he said. “If the guy is sick and you can tell he’s sick, absolutely test him, make sure he stays away from the players and everything else. But if you’re not sick and you have no symptoms, I think everybody concerned would be very happy that we just go on with life and not have to test.”

Virtually every NHL team has been hit by COVID-19 this season, forcing the league to postpone 104 games.

Late last month, the Canucks saw their top three goaltenders, three forwards and two assistant coaches simultaneously sidelined by the virus. The last five Vancouver players to enter the league’s protocol were all asymptomatic, Boudreau said.

“We lost five good players for it seems like not really any apparent reason,” he said.

For athletes on Canadian teams, away games have added an extra layer of complication.

Several players who tested positive on cross-border road trips were forced to stay behind in the U.S. as they waited out the 10 days required before re-entering Canada.

“Guys are sometimes holding their breath just hoping they can get home,” said Vancouver defenceman Luke Schenn. “Sometimes you’re on a 10-day trip and you haven’t seen your wife and your kids in a while and on that last day, you’re just trying not to get a positive test, whether you feel anything or not. Guys just want to get back and see their families.”

It’s tough to lose your guys when they’re feeling fine, said Dave Lowry, interim coach of the Winnipeg Jets, and the latest changes should help take some of the guess work out of setting lineups.

“It’s really hard to be told you can’t come to work when you’re not feeling anything and you’re positive,” he said. “So from that standpoint, I think it puts a sense of relief in that you’re not getting tested every day.”

The league’s latest protocol recommends players receive booster vaccines as they become available and updates the mask policy, “strongly” recommending the use of N95 or KN95 masks while prohibiting the use of cloth masks.

Players, coaches and staff are encouraged to reduce their interactions with the community as much as possible and avoid indoor drinking or dining in a restaurant or bar, unless in a private room or cordoned-off area.

The latest protocol are “a breath of fresh air,” said Jets defenceman Brendan Dillon.

“Ultimately, we want everyone to be safe, we want everyone to feel comfortable,” he said. “And I think we’re accomplishing that still with these new rules.”

Stutzle stuns

Don’t expect Tim Stutzle to net a Gordie Howe hat trick any time soon.

The 20-year-old Senators left-winger came close on Monday, dropping the gloves with William Lagesson late in the third period and returning to score the overtime winner as Ottawa edged the Edmonton Oilers 3-2.

It was a dominant performance, but coach D.J. Smith was quick to note he doesn’t want his young star becoming a bruiser.

Senators defeat Oilers with Stutzle’s overtime goal

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Tim Stutzle lifts Ottawa to a 3-2 overtime victory over Edmonton. 1:30

“Let’s be clear: we don’t want Timmy fighting ever,” Smith said. “He gets in a fight, comes back, does what he does. We’ve got a real hockey player on our hands.”

The third overall pick in the 2020 NHL draft, Stutzle’s better known for filling the net than scrapping, piling up 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists) in 39 games this season.

Stutzle said he was probably about 15 years old and wearing a full visor the last time he fought. This time, the experience left him with a gash that required four or five stitches.

The six-foot, 190-pound forward admitted taking on the six-foot-two, 207-pound Lagesson may not have been wise.

“Maybe a little bit stupid to go out and fight, especially that late in the game. I don’t know,” Stutzle said. “I kind of got a little bit aggressive there and I tried to stand up for myself. I think it got the team going a little bit more there.”

Avalanche keep rolling

The Colorado Avalanche kicked off 2022 in spectacular fashion, going 15-0-1 across the month of January.

The lone loss came on Jan. 11 when the Predators took a 5-4 overtime win in Nashville.

Coach Jared Bednar said the Avs played with consistency throughout the month and found different ways to win.

“Amazing job by our guys,” he said. “It wasn’t a perfect month but January is often a tough month, these middle months of the season. But we got performances from the guys we needed to.”

The Avs’ impressive 10-game win streak was snapped by an unlikely foe Tuesday night when the struggling Arizona Coyotes topped Colorado 3-2 in a shootout. It was the Avs’ first home loss since Nov. 11.

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