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NHL Covid Public Relations and the Olympic Escape

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Rogers Arena, NHL rink
Rogers Arena on Monday as the NHL continues to battle Covid.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman should come out of this latest Covid situation smelling like roses, particularly with his bosses, the NHL owners. Never lose sight of the fact that he actually works for them, and them alone. In this case, all he has to do is continue to keep things stringent, show resolve as it relates to protecting his players and staffs, and continue to make his owners money by whatever means possible.

A significant silver lining of the ongoing Covid mess, other than the huge fact that this latest strain is much less dangerous than the earlier ones, is the fact the NHL and its owners were able to dodge the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

The owners and league hierarchy can’t stand the Olympics. It means a loss of domestic revenue with their league schedule being interrupted, it means not sharing in a lot of the revenue that the local Chinese Olympic committees and the International Olympic Committee share in, and it means a threat to the well-being of their star NHL players. Regardless of whether or not the I.O.C. bucks up to cover family travel and player insurance, the whole package and the scheduling nightmare that comes with it is something the league would rather avoid.

With Covid they were able to play their “get out of jail free card”. (Do people still play Monopoly?) The only difference between equally repulsive (to the NHL) PyongChang in 2018 and Beijing in 2022 is that the NHL promised, actually built it into CBA negotiations, that the players would have the ability to attend the latter.

Not happening. So Bettman and the NHL would be committing public relations suicide if they were to suddenly follow the NFL’s path, one endorsed by Detroit Red Wings General Manager Steve Yzerman and many others, that would loosen up the protocols since it appears the Omicron variant, particularly for young, fit hockey people, is nothing worse than the common cold.

Yzerman has suggested the elimination of tests for players who show no symptoms. What’s the point of sitting out four, six, or ten players who aren’t a threat to anyone?

The problem Stevie Y is, how do you keep those positive asymptomatic players away from people who may be susceptible and just how long are they contagious? Plus, we’ve just cancelled the NHL Olympics, we can’t waver now.

What was the NHL’s deadline for making a decision on the Olympics is still two weeks away.

Setting cynicism aside, pragmatism also factors into this. Given the unpredictable nature of the virus(es) over the last two years, it’s easy for the NHL to stick to its guns. Right here in Vancouver we saw a Canucks team wiped out by Covid last spring, with one player, Brandon Sutter, still not completely recovered. The league can ill-afford any catastrophic similarities, figuratively and literally. No one at HQ wants to see a Covid lawsuit.

So NHL games keep getting postponed as it’s Covid business as usual. Sunday the league and the players’ association agreed to bring back the “Taxi Squad” system from last season, with some minor adjustments to deal with salary cap and AHL player transfer issues. Bottom line, in a pinch, it allows NHL teams to have up to six organizational players readily available to skate in and play. It’s another way to keep the schedule moving and the revenue flowing.

Don’t fret, the NHL Winter Olympics will be back soon enough, an event that league owners will find at least palatable if not delectable.

Shucks, the league doesn’t get a chance to shuttle its biggest sponsors, advertisers and VIP’s to Beijing to watch hockey and live large? Oh well, I guess the owners and their wives will just have to suffer through the Milano/Cortina Italy games in 2026 instead.

Thumbs up Gary. Now let’s play hockey.

VHN Managing Editor Rob Simpson has been covering the NHL for three decades on live TV, radio, and as a journalist. He worked his first ever game getting postgame sound as a teenager; it was Vancouver vs. Detroit.

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