The NHL must quickly find a way to flatten its rapidly-expanding curve. But they're not inspiring much confidence following a series of head-scratching decisions that have plenty of people around the league fuming.

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Opinion

The NHL must quickly find a way to flatten its rapidly-expanding curve. But they're not inspiring much confidence following a series of head-scratching decisions that have plenty of people around the league fuming.

It should come as no surprise that COVID-19 is proving to be a formidable foe. After previous outbreaks in MLB and the NFL, and with no bubble like they had during last summer's playoffs, positive cases were expected once the puck dropped on a new campaign last month. It was a risk NHL players and owners were willing to take in an attempt to mitigate pandemic-related financial damage.

Commissioner Gary Bettman, citing extensive health and safety protocols, claimed they were prepared. And there were some early success stories to suggest he was right, such as getting a pre-season flare-up under control in Dallas, keeping an isolated case on the Winnipeg Jets (Tucker Poolman) from spreading any further, and even levelling a big fine to the Washington Capitals after four players got caught skirting the rules.

The system, it appeared, was working as designed. Until it didn't, such as this past weekend when back-to-back games between the New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres essentially served as a superspreader event — one that never should have been allowed to happen.

What went down in upstate New York might just be the proverbial canary in the coal mine. With goaltender MacKenzie Blackwood already in COVID-19 protocol, teammate Travis Zajac, the Winnipeg product who is just two games shy of 1,000 in his career, joined him last Saturday just prior to his Devils visiting the Sabres. Kyle Palmieri, one of New Jersey's top players, was also held out.

Buffalo won the game 4-3 in a shootout. By the time they were set to face-off again Sunday, Palmieri was added to the protocol. And the Sabres, according to reports, began to inquire with the league whether it was smart to go ahead with their game. They were told to play, and fell 5-3.

Fast forward to this past Tuesday, and 14 Devils were on the daily COVID list. That number swelled to 17 by Wednesday — including a dozen who skated in the weekend games. Five Buffalo players, including former league MVP Taylor Hall, are now on the list. On Thursday, their 61-year-old coach, Ralph Krueger, tested positive. The Sabres are seeing red, and rightfully so.

This has the makings of a public relations disaster, especially if any of the impacted parties get seriously ill. And for those who think it can't happen to otherwise young, healthy players, I point you to the alarming case of Marco Rossi, the highly-prized 19-year-old Minnesota Wild prospect whose career has paused, at least for now, due to what the club is calling complications from COVID that linger several months after he was infected.

On Wednesday, we learned six Minnesota regulars had been added to the protocol. They just finished up three games in four days against Colorado. Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog and forward Tyson Jost joined the list Thursday, along with a seventh Wild skater. This may end up being a second superspreader series in less than a week.

All of which underlines a major flaw with the NHL's testing system. Unlike the NBA, which has rapid tests that deliver almost immediate results, the NHL went the cheaper route with ones that take approximately 24 hours. As we've seen recently, that delay could prove costly. The league should immediately re-consider.

Now three weeks into a four-month season, Buffalo, New Jersey and Minnesota are on temporary shut down, joining Dallas, Vegas and Carolina as other teams with outbreaks that have forced 22 games involving 17 different American clubs (out of 24) to be re-scheduled so far. There have also been approximately 100 different players in COVID protocol, although not all are confirmed positives cases, but rather the result of contact tracing. There were 40 as of Thursday.

The fear is a trickle could soon turn into a flood if this doesn't get under control. Which brings us to another NHL misstep on Thursday, when the league announced new safety measures including removing glass behind all benches for better air flow, ordering all game-day team meetings to be done online, increasing physical distancing in dressing rooms, and telling players they can only come to the rink a maximum of 105 minutes before a game.

In a statement, Bettman said that "we are mindful of the fact that we might be seeing a more aggressive transmission of the virus."

"Our priority has been and will continue to be to act conservatively with an abundance of caution, understanding that there are many things about the transmission of COVID-19 that are still being discovered. As a result, we won’t hesitate to take additional measures as indicated by what we are learning and as directed by our medical advisers," he said.

The only problem is this was done without consultation with the NHLPA. If protocols are going to be effective, the league needs complete buy-in from the very players they sat down at the virtual bargaining table with to hammer out return-to-play details. Dropping a series of new rules on them out of the blue, however logical they might be, does nobody any favours.

Winnipeg's Andrew Copp and Mark Scheifele, who both served on the NHLPA negotiating committee, were spitting fire on Thursday morning.

"If we were just worried about the spread, we wouldn't be playing at all, 100 per cent," Copp told me over a Zoom call. "There's a lot that goes into it and obviously everyone's just trying to do what's best to get these games in and for the league, but I just feel like we have all these other protocols in place and at least here we've followed them pretty closely that I think it's unfair."

They certainly have in Winnipeg, and the Canadian Division, which is the only one yet to have any postponed games. Jets defenceman Tucker Poolman was stricken nearly three weeks ago, shortly after the season-opener against Calgary, but it went no further. I asked Jets coach Paul Maurice why he thinks that hasn't been the case in multiple U.S. markets.

"I think we’re in a really good spot because we’re in Winnipeg, Manitoba. We don’t have a big number here. So we’re in a good spot in the world. And then our guys take it very, very seriously," said Maurice.

"We’re not perfect but we try to be. We’re trying to be right on with this. Because we also feel a responsibility outside the Winnipeg Jets. We’re in the community. We want to be good examples or more importantly, we just don’t want to spread anything and we don’t want to spread anything coming into our room. So we’re doing our very, very best with this. Whether we’ve just been darn lucky, well, I’ll take that kind of luck."

The NHL would do itself a big favour by being more transparent about how these outbreaks are happening. With only the $100,000 fine levelled against four Washington players for gathering in a hotel room on the road, are we to assume that there have been no other violations and that the virus is simply getting in despite everyone's best efforts?

I'm honestly not sure which scenario is worse. But the hope is everyone can get on the same page and figure it out. Otherwise, a unique season that started with so much promise could soon start circling the drain.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

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.

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