A pair of Jets skaters agree with NHL goalie Robin Lehner, who believes league COVID protocols should be relaxed for vaccinated NHL teams.
Speaking Thursday morning, Winnipeg defenceman Josh Morrissey and winger Andrew Copp said players who’ve already faced the needle should be afforded more freedom, both at the rink and away from it.
Neither sees it as an edge over teams forced to comply with tighter restrictions.
"I don't really see it as a competitive advantage if a guy can go out to dinner or see some friends if he's been vaccinated. From our perspective, where we can't really do much in Canada, I would hope that the guys who have gone through the vaccination, that they can go and live their lives the way they normally do," said Copp.
"Obviously, the mental health thing has impacted a lot of people — pretty much everyone, I would say — in some shape or form. The isolation's probably been brutal for pretty much everyone so I think mental health's probably the biggest thing right now. You do what you can for yourself and your close friends and whatnot and try to be there for them. But yeah, especially if someone's already been vaccinated, they should be able to do what they want."
Copp and Jets centre Mark Scheifele were on an NHLPA committee that worked with the league on return-to-play guidelines in late 2020.
The Jets have yet to be vaccinated for COVID-19, and there is no ability, nor will, to jump the queue.
On Wednesday, Lehner, a netminder with the Vegas Golden Knights, spoke for 10 minutes on the issue, suggesting the league and Players' Union lied when they told the players once they were vaccinated that quarantine and isolation restrictions would be softened.
He likened the situation to "prison" but then later apologized for comparing athletes' circumstances to jail-like confines.
“I don't really see it as a competitive advantage if a guy can go out to dinner or see some friends if he's been vaccinated." — Andrew Copp
"They told me (Tuesday) they're surveying all the teams to see who has taken the vaccine and who has not taken the vaccines and they're not going to change the rules… until all teams have the vaccines at the same time so it's not a competitive edge," he said. "That made me go crazy, to be honest."
Lehner, a veteran of 11 NHL seasons split between the Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres, New York Islanders, Chicago Blackhawks and Vegas, has been outspoken about mental-health awareness after dealing with bipolar disorder for much of his life.
"This is human lives and people are struggling with this stuff in society a lot and we are humans as everyone else, so there is a two-fold problem for me here. We had a meeting at the beginning of camp that told us we can't go out of our house, can't go to the grocery store, can't do anything, on the road you can take a meal, go up to your room, don't be with your teammates, don't do this, don't do that, no one thinks about the mental impact."
The NHL immediately responded, saying no communication ever went out to any player or organization that COVID-19 protocols would be relaxed following vaccinations.
Morrissey, speaking on the issue during Thursday’s morning press availability, said it stands to reason adjustments should be made for players who’ve been vaccinated.
"It’s a tricky situation that, obviously, we’ve never gone through before. I understand where players are coming from that have been vaccinated and nothing has really changed for them in their daily life other than having the vaccine," he said. "I haven’t thought a whole lot about it here, but I do think the mental-health toll that everyone’s gone through, no matter who you are, over the last year and a bit has been tough. So, I think we’re all hoping and wanting to get back to a lifestyle that resembles what it was prior to the pandemic and wanting to get back there as soon as possible.
"Certainly, once you get the vaccine I think that’s sort of been the marker for us all if we can get the vaccine, get it rolled out and then we can go back to normal. So, I understand the frustration. I understand the idea of competitive advantage. But I do think that if it’s safe — and that’s always been the No.1 priority — and they feel loosening some of the restrictions for the guys who’ve been vaccinated to allow them to sort of live their lives and it doesn’t affect the safety of it, then I don’t see why that would be an issue.
"In my mind, why not give them more freedom if it’s safe and they’ve got the vaccine."
New Toronto forward Nick Foligno played with Lehner in Ottawa and respects him deeply for being a champion of mental-health issues. But he also believes the NHL and union are taking the steps they deem appropriate to keep players, staff and their family members safe and healthy.
"I know Robin and I know he’s concerned about the mental-health side, which is so important and something we definitely need to continue to talk about. But we also know in talking to the league they’re doing what they can with the safety of everybody involved," said Foligno, who made his Maples Leafs debut against the Jets.
He was acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets on the eve of the trade deadline, and was allowed to quarantine at his off-season home in Sudbury, Ont., before meeting the team in Winnipeg.
"We’re just like everyone else. Different circumstances throughout, but still feel the same way, same emotions. You don’t discount someone’s feelings just because of their stature. I think we’re lucky sometimes to have a voice, and Robin’s trying to do that, but all the while knowing we are fortunate to do what we do and play this game."
Assistant sports editor
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