With the NHL season paused and more than 16 percent of players and more than 50 team staffers in COVID-19 protocols, another part of the league has been heavily affected.
More than 13 NHL game officials were in COVID-19 protocols as of Tuesday night, according to reports and league sources who declined to comment publicly. The league doesn’t release numbers for officials in COVID-19 protocols.
“Our officiating team has followed, and will continue to follow, all recommended guidelines aimed at protecting their health and safety as set by the NHL, local, state/provincial and federal agencies,” an NHL spokesperson said in an email.
NHL director of officials Stephen Walkom did not respond to a request for comment, and neither did the NHL Officials Association.
The league’s guideline for officials in the NHL rule book reads:
“On-Ice Officials shall continue to strictly adhere to the Protocol requirement to wear a face covering at all times while interacting with team personnel (other than during Games when they are unmasked).
“On-Ice Officials shall physically distance from one another (at least one empty chair) for any meals they eat together.
“Meetings for On-Ice Officials shall be virtual, unless transitory in nature.”
According to Jeff Marek at Sportsnet, at least 8-10 officials have been “affected” by COVID-19. As of Dec. 18, Marek reported that five were scheduled to leave protocols soon, but the number of officials entering protocol had also grown.
Last week’s first period of the Colorado Avalanche-New York Rangers game was played with three officials — instead of the usual four — while referee Brian Pochmara was awaiting results of his test. He officiated the second period after testing negative.
There has been a handful of games missing officials due to unspecified reasons. Referee Ryan Galloway was pulled from the Dec. 16 game between the Canucks and Sharks. On Dec. 17, three games — Rangers vs. Golden Knights, Blues vs. Stars and Coyotes vs. Ducks — were played with three-man crews with no reason given. The missing officials were Kendrick Nicholson, Mitch Dunning and linesman Ryan Gibbons — a former Seattle Thunderbirds player.
Typically, the league gives a reason when an official leaves a game. For example, Marc Joannette left the Bruins-Red Wings game Dec. 1 after suffering a broken leg, and linesman Jonny Murray left the Dec. 4 Golden Knights-Coyotes game because of a lower-body injury.
Refereeing crews do not travel together, but individually. Unlike NHL teams and their personnel, though, officials fly commercially to games they work. The league said positive results are being dealt with among officials on a “case by case basis.”
The NHL is on pause until Sunday, as more than 40 games in the past two weeks have been postponed. That should give officials in protocol some time.
The NHL has 45 referees and 40 linesmen, with crews of four — two refs and two officials — for each game. If the league is short-handed when play resumes, it could recall officials from the AHL as an emergency. But the NHL’s minor league has had COVID-19 issues as well, with multiple teams going on pause in the past two weeks.
But unlike the playoffs, the league does not have officials on standby or in reserve during the regular season. So if there are not enough officials, games could be affected.
The break could help resolve that, but COVID-19 will still be around when games resume. So it bears watching how officials come out of this break, and whether they are affected by the league’s enhanced protocols that primarily include more mask-wearing.