Patrice Bergeron did not have to convince his teammates to get vaccinated.
“No meetings about it,” the Bruins captain said. “Everyone was kind of on board and did it organically, if you will, for their own beliefs and themselves and their families.”
Meanwhile, Sabres forward Kyle Okposo noted there was a bottom-line reason for players to take their shots.
“It’s funny what happens when you start to affect people’s wallets,” he said.
NHL players reported for the Back to Normalcy Tour this past week, nearly all showing up for the first days of training camp fully vaccinated against COVID-19. This is no small thing.
In the summertime, Oilers general manager Ken Holland said, talk around the league was that 80 to 90 players among the 700-plus workforce had yet to get vaccinated. Now, according to deputy commissioner Bill Daly, the NHL expects single-digit holdouts. Twenty-seven of 32 teams reported being 100 percent vaccinated or expected to be there in the coming days. Only four teams, Detroit, Edmonton, New Jersey, and San Jose, project to start the season with unvaccinated players on their rosters.
The Athletic reported that the Devils’ unvaccinated player was a prominent part of the team, who changed his mind about getting the vaccine shortly before camp. His name was not disclosed. The club was hoping he would change his mind, rather than miss their nine games in Canada.
We’re talking about an indoor sport, where virus transmission is overwhelmingly greater than outdoor games. Still, in light of the significant number of loud vaccine skeptics in the NFL and Major League Baseball, hockey’s labor force deserves credit.
It is not completely, of course, because every player was eager to roll up his sleeve. Unlike the NFL and MLB, which imposes no direct financial penalties on unvaccinated players, unvaccinated NHLers can be suspended without pay if they are unable to participate because of COVID protocol (among vaccinated players, positive tests or close contacts are treated as hockey injuries). The NHL’s status as a dual-country league, and Canada’s quarantine regulations, makes it all but impossible for teams to bring unvaccinated players on some road trips.
The highest-profile of the cases: Red Wings forward Tyler Bertuzzi, who explained his refusal to be vaccinated as “a personal choice, freedom of choice” and “a life decision,” will miss the team’s eight games in Canada. On that alone, Bertuzzi, who signed a two-year, $9.5 million extension in July, stands to forfeit upward of $450,000.
He will have to isolate in his room on road trips, cannot join his teammates for dinners at restaurants, must mask up and socially distance himself while working out. After 18 months of living in the NHL’s protective bubble, it’s a wonder any player would willingly stay in it.
“It’s his decision,” general manager Steve Yzerman said. “We can’t force anyone to get vaccinated. I personally am vaccinated. My family is vaccinated. I’ll leave it at that.”
The Oilers started camp with one unvaccinated player, believed to be depth forward Josh Archibald, who has been tweeting links to conspiracy-themed videos about COVID-19.
The Sharks, who had assistant coach Rocky Thompson step down while citing an undisclosed medical condition as his reason for declining vaccination, may be leaving a player or two behind when they start a Canadian trip in Montreal on Oct. 19. Asked if his team was fully vaccinated, GM Doug Wilson would only say: “We are completely compliant with the NHL protocols, and the state and county protocols. Staff also. So we’re in a good position going forward.” A team source confirmed that Wilson was choosing his words carefully.
Other players further on the NHL fringe all but sabotaged their chances of working at the highest level.
The Blue Jackets prohibited newly signed forward Zac Rinaldo, who said he was not anti-vax but “pro choice,” from coming to camp. The team also dismissed assistant coach Sylvain Lefebvre, on the job less than three months, because he refused. Unlike players, there is no flexibility for staffers. Anyone who works within 12 feet of hockey operations personnel must be fully vaccinated, per NHL regulations.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell them what to do, even though I’d like to see the whole world get vaccinated,” Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson said. “My daughter is a doctor. She believes in this, and I believe in her because she’s a whole lot smarter than I am.”
Islanders prospect Bode Wilde essentially turned down his shot to make the NHL. The 2018 second-round pick, who played the last two seasons with AHL Bridgeport, said on his Instagram account he hoped “[his] human rights are enough to let me play … what a world.” Wilde walked that back, correctly stating that playing in the NHL was “the privilege of a lifetime,” but he then argued his decision should not affect his ability to play hockey.
GM Lou Lamoriello, who didn’t mention Wilde by name, said his organization’s lone unvaccinated player was not invited to camp and may be ticketed for Europe.
More than 4.55 million deaths worldwide have been attributed to the virus. The Delta variant is prolonging the pandemic. Because of vaccinations, every NHL building will open at 100 percent capacity except two in Canada: Montreal’s Bell Centre (33 percent) and Vancouver’s Rogers Arena (50 percent). Ten of 32 will require proof of vaccination. Eight will require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test (this includes TD Garden). Fourteen of 32 won’t require any documentation for entry. Twenty-one of 32 will require masks for all fans.
They play on, without a few non-believers.
“The vaccine works — it works,” Canucks forward Jason Dickinson said. “There’s a lot of people that want to argue it. And I guess that’s their right, but there’s a lot of people that are losing their rights right now by having to wait [the unvaccinated] out. It’s slowing down everybody else’s life.”
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Eichel, Sabres remain at odds
The Jack Eichel situation took another ugly turn this past week.
The Sabres, refusing to sign off on the star center’s preferred surgery (disk replacement) for his injured neck, stripped Eichel of the captaincy he had held the last three seasons. They did not name a replacement.
Eichel, then 20, signed an eight-year, $80 million contract in 2017. Now 24, he starts training camp on injured reserve after failing his physical.
One of the game’s brightest talents remains in a holding pattern. There are no simple solutions.
The North Chelmsford product and his camp believe the disk replacement surgery is safe, citing its use among MMA fighters and other pro athletes. The Sabres contend an NHL player has never had it. Given the fact no team has stepped up with a trade package that pleases GM Kevyn Adams, it’s likely that at least a few teams have reservations about the procedure. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported, however, that some teams would sign off on Eichel getting the disk replacement.
No team wants to trade for damaged goods, and Adams would be writing his own pink slip if he didn’t get maximum value for his only superstar.
If Eichel goes ahead and gets the surgery while a Sabre, the team could suspend him without pay. He would be paid if he remains on IR.
Not lost in all this: It’s a blow to Team USA’s Olympic roster, which would have had him as a key piece of the top six, likely as the No. 2 center behind Auston Matthews.
Hayes carries on without brother
One player everyone in hockey is rooting for: Kevin Hayes.
The favorite son of Dorchester opened up about the loss of Jimmy Hayes in his first training camp news conference, saying his memory will drive him.
“When I’m having bad days or bad games or not playing up to [what] all the fans want me to here,” the Flyers center said, “I’ll just think of my brother, and hopefully he’ll push me through.”
Kevin Hayes said he was “taken aback” by the support he received after Jimmy Hayes, 31, died on Aug. 23 in Milton. The Flyers organization was constantly there. Penguins president Brian Burke “basically reached out every day,” Hayes said, and fellow players, including Sidney Crosby, Gabriel Landeskog, and P.K. Subban, checked in.
Hayes, who will miss 6-8 weeks after having abdominal surgery this past week, can’t wait to get back. He will be embraced in every building when he returns.
A master stroke by the Islanders
For nearly a decade in Boston, Zdeno Chara was essentially the training wheels for a young defense partner. Beginning in their age-20 rookie seasons, he tutored Dougie Hamilton (2013), Brandon Carlo (2016), and Charlie McAvoy (2017). All three have become excellent NHL defensemen.
Next up: Noah Dobson.
Islanders coach Barry Trotz paired the 44-year-old Chara with the 21-year-old Dobson to start camp and is likely to keep that tandem together come October. Dobson, entering his third NHL season, was a year old when Chara was traded from the Island to Ottawa.
“It’s not a bad thing to play alongside a guy like Z,” Trotz said. “He’s got a lot of experience and you know he’s got your back.”
Haula wants to be here for long haul
New Bruin Erik Haula, who has the inside track for a third-line center gig, hopes the two-year, $4.75 million deal he signed leads to another one in Boston. The 30-year-old Finn is on his sixth team in the last seven years.
“That’s always been the goal, settling in,” he said. “I’m here as a Boston Bruin and I’m here to stay.”
Haula has been chasing the stability he felt in Vegas in 2017-18, with 29 goals and 55 points to help the first-year Golden Knights. He learned about the benefits of having zero external expectations.
“The so-called Misfits,” he recalled. “Came together like no other team I’ve been a part of — quickly — had a ton of fun, believed in themselves, and overachieved in some sense, but also gained the confidence level that’s not that easy to [attain].
“It wasn’t just one guy. It was every single guy there. Every single guy had something to prove. When you combine all those things, you can do something special.”
Could Seattle pull off a Vegas repeat?
“Why not?” Haula said. “Every team is good in this league. Every team starts from zero.”
David Krejci’s Czech return has been a smashing success. The longtime Bruin, playing for hometown HC Olomouc, started with five goals and an assist in four games. The Roosters were 3-1-0 … NHL training camps began this past week with a slew of other prominent players on the sidelines. Auston Matthews, who had wrist surgery on Aug. 13, was a non-participant. Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said the team expects Matthews to be ready for the Oct. 13 season opener … It’s surely too early to write an obituary for Phil Kessel’s ironman streak — at 900 games — but he will miss camp after injuring his foot a few weeks ago. Kessel, 33, led the Coyotes with 43 points in 56 games last season, a nice bounce-back from his first year in the desert (38 points in 70 games). His $8 million deal expires next summer. He looks like a surefire trade deadline candidate, since his front-loaded deal (signed with Toronto in 2013) pays him just $1 million in salary this season. Kessel can choose eight trade destinations. If he stays healthy, he could break the NHL record for consecutive games (964, set by Doug Jarvis in 1987). Milton’s Keith Yandle, who enters the year at 922, could get there first if the newly signed Flyer remains in the lineup. Neither player has missed a game since 2009 … The Canadiens’ chances of recapturing that Stanley Cup Final magic did not rise when Carey Price (knee) and free agent signee Mike Hoffman (lower body) failed their physicals. Both are likely out for all of camp ... The Penguins finally provided clarity on Evgeni Malkin’s knee injury: he’ll miss at least two months. With Crosby (wrist surgery) set to miss the start of the season, the Penguins opened camp with taxi-squadder Radim Zohorna as a top-six center ... Another mid-30s star, Nicklas Backstrom, was listed as week to week as he rehabs the hip injury that was bothering him in the playoffs. A bit concerning, since that was four months ago. The Capitals did not trade Evgeny Kuznetsov, as many predicted they would, and Kuznetsov told reporters he was ready to atone for a year that saw him catch COVID twice. “You can judge my game now,” he said … In Dallas, it’s unclear if Ben Bishop will play again. The ex-Maine stopper, who spent all of last season rehabbing his knee, will start the season on injured reserve. The Stars could open with Anton Khudobin and newly signed Braden Holtby as a tandem, with Boston University product Jake Oettinger, on the final year of his entry-level deal, in the AHL … The NHL cleared Evander Kane of allegations he gambled on games, but Kane’s troubles aren’t over. The Sharks forward will remain away from camp “until further notice,” the team said, after his estranged wife, Anna Kane, accused him of domestic violence in a restraining order suit in Santa Clara (Calif.) County … The Blues named former Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli as vice president of hockey operations, shifting Dave Taylor to senior adviser. The Blues also brought back former coach Ken Hitchcock as a coaching consultant. Chiarelli, 57, won the Stanley Cup with the Bruins in his time here (2006-15) but is remembered in Edmonton for trading Taylor Hall before his MVP season … Doesn’t sound like Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov wants to be anywhere else. He told reporters that the “only thing I think about” is remaining in South Florida. Barkov, the second overall pick in 2013, is in the final year of one of the league’s best bargain deals ($5.9 million AAV) … Patrice Bergeron, on the possibility of making the cut for Team Canada at the Beijing Olympics in February: “Those things are obviously on your radar. I’m very aware that I’m Canadian.” Few shifts are more challenging than 45 seconds against Brad Marchand, Crosby, and Bergeron … Best dad joke of the week came from Sabres wing Kyle Okposo, riffing on the topic of No. 1 overall pick Owen Power returning to the University of Michigan: “I was gonna say, ‘More Power to him,’ but that’s pretty bad.” Rimshot … Blackhawks defenseman Connor Murphy, getting to know brothers Seth and Caleb Jones, revealed he’s “been calling both Jonesies ‘Jonesy.’ In today’s unoriginal world, the “Chicoutimi Cucumber” (Georges Vezina) would be just another “Vezzy” … Amusing sight gag: Harvard man Adam Fox, voted the league’s best defenseman, stepped on the ice at camp wearing his usual No. 23 underneath a new name plate: “NORRIS.” Ask Rangers fans, and the new moniker had three letters too many … Marchand, always hamming it up, was pleased to see reporters back in the building for camp: “It’s lonely without you guys.” The return of face-to-face interviews means he no longer has to stare into a laptop screen during Zoom interviews. “It’s odd, because you look at yourself the whole time, you know?” he said. “I mean, I like that, but ... not that much.”