Inside the NHL
When push came to shove on the COVID-19 vaccination front, NHL players overwhelmingly declined to drop their gloves and scrap it out with the league.
That’s the emerging news as NHL training camps open this week, with word that 98% of players will be fully vaccinated once the regular season starts next month. Several teams have tweeted that their rosters are 100% vaccinated, and I’m told the Kraken is one of those, even though general manager Ron Francis said he wasn’t authorized to comment.
Given our city’s dark history with pandemics and hockey, it’s a relief to see Kraken players aren’t testing the resolve of both the team and most of the local community. With the 1919 Stanley Cup Final in Seattle still the lone major sports championship ever canceled by a pandemic that also killed some players and maybe coaches as well, it’s good to see the league and Players’ Association getting tough about vaccine compliance.
Sure, the NHL, as with the NFL, didn’t outright tell players they had to be vaccinated. But unlike the NFL, which is played entirely in the U.S., the NHL is a two-country league requiring border crossings, and Canada isn’t letting unvaccinated players in without a 14-day quarantine.
So when the NHL tells unvaccinated players they’ll lose pay if unavailable for games, that amounts to a severe, automatic and repeating fine. The Kraken plays preseason games next week in Edmonton and Calgary, and unvaccinated players would have missed that trip, jeopardizing their wallets and for some the ability to make the team.
The Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday announced they had rescinded a training-camp invite to forward Zac Rinaldo and that he’d be dispatched to the American Hockey League for refusing to be vaccinated. Rinaldo, 31, has said he isn’t anti-vax, but “pro choice” — an increasingly nonstarter argument when individual choices to avoid vaccination risks prolonging the pandemic, straining essential medical services and impacting the health and livelihoods of others.
“We’re going to have 67 players in our camp, and they’re all going to be vaccinated,” Blue Jackets president John Davidson said. “Everything we do, we do together as a team.”
Rinaldo’s two-way contract pays $750,000 if he’s in the NHL but only $275,000 in the AHL.
Last week the team fired assistant coach Sylvain Lefebvre for refusing to be vaccinated; NHL rules mandate vaccines for all staffers coming within 12 feet of players.
Davidson likely isn’t the only team executive about to lay down the hammer. Unvaccinated holdout players face heavy testing mandates and social-distancing protocols, which will impact even the way their teams can practice at camp.
In other words, any players still refusing the vaccine — and by the NHL’s own count, that’s probably 15 or fewer — had best be Wayne Gretzky or Bobby Orr good to avoid what’s coming. Rinaldo, with 42 points in 374 career games, is no Gretzky.
MAGA and Parler enthusiast Tony DeAngelo, now a Carolina Hurricanes defenseman, may have blue-line talent, but he certainly isn’t Orr. Even DeAngelo, for all his anti-vax rhetoric on social media, has reportedly now chosen to do his part for society by getting a needle jab or two.
And that’s exactly the arm-twisted compliance these rules, increasingly imposed by sports leagues and governments, were designed to do. The alternative is to allow a small, vocal minority to continue prolonging a pandemic that reportedly has killed more than 675,000 people nationwide — this week surpassing the U.S. death toll from the Spanish flu a century ago.
For those stubbornly downplaying the death comparisons by noting the overall U.S. population is now three times greater than back then, I’ll counter that our current ability to relay lifesaving information from public-health authorities is probably 10,000 times better than in 1918-19.
So, unlike in March 1919 in Seattle, when the Montreal Canadiens were locked in an epic Cup struggle with the local Metropolitans, our handheld computer communications devices nowadays can tell us instantly whether we’re still in the midst of the latest pandemic surge.
Nowadays, when we see apparently fatigued players collapsing on the ice, we have the technology to know whether its from something more serious than a hard-fought series. That wasn’t the case back then, as sickened Canadiens and Metropolitans players dropped to their knees midgame.
And unlike the days following cancellation of that 1919 Cup Final, when Canadiens defenseman Joe Hall lay dying in a Seattle hospital he would never leave alive, the players back then had no access to vaccines capable of preventing the Spanish flu from killing or mortally wounding them.
When Canadiens coach George Kennedy and Metropolitans coach Pete Muldoon died in 1921 and 1929, respectively, it was widely believed they’d never fully recovered from contracting the Spanish flu during that Cup Final. Just as athletes today contracting and seemingly recovering from COVID-19 with minimal consequences don’t know what is in store.
Yeah, that’s sobering. Chilling, even. Perhaps a strong argument we shouldn’t be playing any sports until this pandemic is done.
But we are, and these are some of the minimal sacrifices required.
Speaking of sacrifices, though many hockey fans know of Hall’s demise, far fewer are aware of the story of Hamby Shore, a three-time Cup-winning Ottawa Senators defenseman and winger who became the first NHL player to die during that previous pandemic.
When his wife, Ruby Legendre, became flu-stricken in October 1918, Shore, at 32 nearly the same age as demoted Blue Jackets forward Rinaldo is today, made the ultimately fatal decision to remain by her bedside caring for her in their small Ottawa home. One week later Shore fell ill, contracted pneumonia and died, having selflessly given his life for a loved one in need.
Shore’s wife? She survived her illness and lived until 1990, when she died at age 98.
So there apparently are still things we can learn about pandemics and bravery. The Kraken players didn’t do anything brave by getting vaccinated. But with their minimal sacrifice, they’ve avoided creating additional, needless strain for those around them.
And for that, given where we are with COVID-19, their new team and the vast majority of fans in this fledgling NHL market will no doubt be grateful.