October 1, 2020

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Secrecy surrounding several absent NHLers leading to speculation

Opinion

Anthony Bitetto might have COVID-19. Or maybe he doesn’t. I can’t tell you either way, because the NHL and the union representing players apparently want it that way.

And it’s not just Bitetto, the Winnipeg Jets depth defenceman, who is surrounded by speculation these days. The same goes for Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby, Boston Bruins leading scorer David Pastrnak, Chicago Blackhawks starting goalie Corey Crawford, Colorado Avalanche rookie sensation Cale Makar and a handful of other skaters.

All of them, it turns out, are currently "unfit to practice," which is the newest buzz phrase created by a hockey league that loves taking your money — but feels you are owed little when it comes to transparency.

Winnipeg Jets players walk to the rink during summer training camp.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Jets players walk to the rink during summer training camp.

Coaches like Paul Maurice, Mike Sullivan, Bruce Cassidy, Jeremy Colliton and Jared Bednar have been forced to do a silly daily dance with us nosy sports snoops who wonder why this or that player wasn’t on the ice. Just when we thought upper-body and lower-body descriptors were as vague as it could get, the bar gets lowered even more by equipping paranoid bench bosses with an all-encompassing blanket to use on every groin strain and muscle tweak.

I’d suggest it’s bringing about some unexpected consequences with it.

In Bitetto’s case, we’re now nine days into Winnipeg’s summer camp and he’s yet to make an appearance at Bell MTS Iceplex. There was similar mystery last week when Jets backup goalie Laurent Brossoit and Manitoba Moose call-ups Nelson Nogier and Logan Stanley were MIA for the first few skates.

Odds are they are/were dealing with minor aches and pains, or maybe even quarantine related hold-ups that could all be easily explained, rather than a global pandemic that has already killed more than 8,000 in Canada and 143,000 in the United States. We’ll likely never know.

There are a few notable exceptions.

Las Vegas coach Peter DeBoer told scribes there that forward Max Pacioretty wasn’t able to practice Monday, then quickly followed up by indicating it wasn’t due to a positive test. That wasn’t so hard, was it? I’m sure Pacioretty appreciated the clarity. However, I suspect DeBoer has already received a stern phone call from the league, and that’s the first and last time you’ll hear a coach be so candid going forward.

Vegas Golden Knights left wing Max Pacioretty was absent from team practice Monday. Head coach Pete DeBoer made sure to make it clear the absence was not due to a positive test for the coronavirus.

(AP PHOTO/JOHN LOCHER)

Vegas Golden Knights left wing Max Pacioretty was absent from team practice Monday. Head coach Pete DeBoer made sure to make it clear the absence was not due to a positive test for the coronavirus.

The only permissible way around this rule is if players willingly disclose their health status themselves, as Ottawa’s Jayce Hawryluk (to Free Press colleague Jason Bell in April), Toronto’s Auston Matthews (following a news report citing sources) and Edmonton’s Caleb Jones have all done.

Good on them. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for the next player to follow suit.

Newsflash: Nobody thinks any less of Hawryluk, Matthews or Jones as a result. I suspect they have plenty of sympathy for what they went through, especially since 3.8 million Americans and 111,000 Canadians have already got COVID-19. In that sense, much of society can relate to these guys.

And yet, the NHL would have you think a positive test is so shameful that it ought to be shrouded in secrecy, and that releasing such information would turn these players into pariahs.

It shouldn’t. It wouldn’t. And it’s especially dumb when you consider nearly everyone who has missed a skate since camps opened on July 13 had a reason other than COVID-19, even if nobody is allowed to say that.

We know this because according to the NHL’s weekly data, released Monday, just two unidentified players (out of more than 800) tested positive in the first week of Phase 3. And yet, there’s been at least a couple dozen players deemed "unfit to practice," including nine members of the Penguins right out of the gate, and a half-dozen Bruins at last count.

By essentially painting everyone with the same, extremely vague brush, most people are assuming the worst. That can’t be what the players really wanted when they sat down to hammer out the details of this agreement, is it?

All of this overshadows what should be a good news story, as these latest numbers are encouraging for the prospect of not only starting the playoffs as scheduled, but finishing them later this fall.

A major outbreak in training camp could have derailed this whole process, especially with the 24 teams still in the hunt for the Stanley Cup holding their workouts in their home markets. Many of these are in virus hot spots in Florida, Texas, Arizona and Nevada.

Although players are being encouraged to limit their activities outside the rink, they’re not forbidden from going into the community. Here in Winnipeg, for example, several Jets have hit the golf course following their morning skates.

To have only two positives, out of 2,618 tests (players are being tested every second day) is pretty much a best-case scenario — especially since 43 players tested positive during Phase 2, which involved voluntary workouts at team facilities.

A big number of Monday might have spelled disaster.

The danger for everyone involved would to become complacent and let their guards down, as we’re starting to see in various cities including Winnipeg. Players are set to travel on Sunday to hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto, then enter the much-more rigid, secure bubble environment where they will remain until their season ends.

Provided they can get there safely and follow the rules, there’s no reason to think they can’t keep the virus mostly at bay.

This week is key, since anyone who tests positive in the coming days would have to be left behind for their club. Under the agreed upon league protocols, all players must have three negatives over a seven-day period prior to going to the hub.

Of course, if that were to happen, get ready to start hearing about a player who is "unfit to travel" eventually become one who is "unfit to play."

All thanks to a policy that is proving to be anything but sound.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

Read full biography

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Updated on Monday, July 20, 2020 at 7:10 PM CDT: Adds photo

7:21 PM: Fixes typo in photo caption.

10:22 PM: Fixes there/their typo

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