Mike McKenna, Daily Faceoff
Over a year and a half into a global pandemic, the topic of COVID-19 vaccination couldn’t be more tiresome. And yet here we are, at the start of the 2021-22 NHL season and the topic simply won’t go away.
I talked to a number of players across the league, and the overwhelming majority feel that vaccination is simply the player’s choice. No judgment. No difficult conversations. It hasn’t even been a topic of conversation in most locker rooms. But on Wednesday, Mackenzie Blackwood told media that while the Devils have been nothing but supportive of him, he did admit that it “puts a little bit of strain on my teammates and staff around me, which I don’t enjoy, and I don’t like being the cause of that.”
For the players, that’s the easy thing to do. Teammates are friends. We don’t want to upset anyone, especially when it comes to discussing a medical decision like vaccination. But life isn’t easy. We all play the game to win. And I can say this: if I had a teammate that was unwilling to get vaccinated, I wouldn’t want them on my team. I can respect the health decision. I can be friends with them. But I can’t respect the lack of commitment to winning when every other player on the team has gotten the shots. The reality is that vaccination is now a cost of doing business if you want to be an NHL player.
During last week’s NHL/NHLPA Player Media Tour, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told Daily Faceoff that the NHL is projecting at least 98 percent of its players will be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before the puck drops on opening night.
That’s a great number, but there are holdouts. In addition to Blackwood, Josh Archibald (Oilers) and Tyler Bertuzzi (Red Wings) have chosen not to be vaccinated. Zac Rinaldo also isn’t vaccinated and the Blue Jackets told him he wasn’t welcome at training camp.
Let’s be clear: a significant percentage of NHL players did not want to be vaccinated and felt cornered by the looming restrictions. Many have already had COVID-19 and believe their natural antibodies are enough to protect them. They question why vaccination is necessary.
But last season was miserable for the players and the desire to live a more normal life was the driving factor for many that chose to become vaccinated this summer.
What did surprise some was how long it took certain teammates to initiate the vaccination process: at least one team still has players in a separate locker room waiting to be cleared. Players said it wasn’t a big deal, but it left them wondering “what were you thinking?” in regards to the unvaccinated teammates.
They knew the restrictions were coming. The NHL isn’t opening the 2021-22 season with any intention of shifting games due to a COVID-19 outbreak. With research showing that vaccinated individuals are far less likely to contract the virus, the league was bound to make life much more difficult on the unvaccinated.
Choosing to be vaccinated has always been a choice for the players. But there are ramifications for those who have opted against it: teams can suspend players (without pay) that are “unable to participate in club activities.” That’s a big problem considering unvaccinated players face quarantine requirements when crossing the US/Canadian border. Unvaccinated players are also subject to much more extensive testing and restrictions while on the road.
But does the problem solely fall on the shoulders of the player? Is it as simple as the player losing salary without any animosity from their team or teammates? Why did some wait so long?
One player I spoke with estimated that in the middle of summer, his team still had about a dozen players that hadn’t started the vaccination process. It’s easy to blame procrastination, and that probably occurred to a certain degree, but mostly it could be chalked up to willful ignorance. Some players simply wanted to believe that despite countless warning signs, the league would end up being soft on vaccination.
That didn’t happen.
Imagine this scenario: you’re a reliable goal scorer for your team, and you’ve chosen not to get vaccinated. You miss a handful of games and your team ends up a point or two short of playoffs. Or you’re the starting goaltender, your backup can’t save a beach ball and your team misses out.
I don’t think teammates would shrug it off like they are currently. The question turns into: “why are we giving a roster spot to this guy if he doesn’t want to help us win?” Those are tough conversations to have within a locker room and responsibility falls on the leadership group. You need a unified voice and a strong captain.
A lot of players feel they made a sacrifice to get vaccinated. That they had to do it if they wanted to play an entire season, live a more normal life and most importantly: get paid the full amount of their contract. Going unvaccinated may be a personal choice, but it flies in the face of hockey culture. Team first. Follow the herd. Do what you’re told. Logo on the front, not the name on the back. Get the shot. And as much as I can’t stand the buttoned-up, boring, ho-hum nature of today’s professional hockey players, I do think this is one instance where herd mentality makes sense. In more ways than one.
Of course it’s easy to delve into what-about-isms pertaining to injuries and suspensions. Players miss games during a season for reasons beyond their control. But this isn’t the same. Unvaccinated players are choosing to put their teams shorthanded and it’s going to have consequences. If you’re an unvaccinated UFA looking for a contract, why would an NHL team sign you? If you’re a bubble player trying to make the big club, why give any excuse to send you down to the AHL? If you’re a goaltender on the Olympic radar, why throw away an opportunity to play for your country?
It takes serious guts to stand up for what you believe in and kudos to the players who have done so. It’s their body. But playing professional hockey is a privilege, not a right. And by choosing to go unvaccinated, players are blazing a very difficult path to future employment and acceptance in the hockey world.