The Bruins reported to Brighton for a 10:30 a.m. practice Saturday, called it off because of an uptick in positive COVID-19 tests, and by 2 p.m. learned that the NHL had placed their game and practice schedule on pause through at least Dec. 26.
The pace of the action is picking up around the league’s 32 teams. But it’s the invisible hand of the COVID-19 virus, one that has claimed more than 850,000 lives in the United States and Canada, that now dictates the NHL’s every move— both on and off the ice.
By mid-afternoon, the Bruins announced two additions to their protracted COVID protocol list: forwards Taylor Hall and Curtis Lazar. It brought to nine the number of Bruins who either test positive or were deemed to be in close contact with someone who tested positive. Two club staff members also were in protocol.
The Bruins in their last two games (both losses) already were without star forwards Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, as well as No. 2 right winger Craig Smith. Their designation to the COVID list left the Bruins at an obvious, if not lopsided, competitive imbalance that led to losses to the Golden Knights and the Islanders.
General manager Don Sweeney said Saturday night, in a brief Zoom news conference, that he agreed with the league’s decision to play the game on Long Island, despite having only 17 skaters available.
“In all honesty,” he said, “I think we should have played in that game — along the same lines of several other teams that have gone through similar circumstances . . . That’s just what you’re up against.”
Speculation around the league increased all day Saturday, partly in light of both the Bruins and Predators being added to the list of franchises placed on pause, that league bosses this weekend could opt similarly to shut down all franchises through at least the holiday break.
If so, it would be the second leaguewide pause in 21 months. In March 2020, at the very start of the pandemic outbreak in North America, the NHL put all its then-31 teams on pause after some 70 games each. Weeks later, the league canceled the remainder of its regular season, then staged a full Stanley Cup tournament in Toronto and Edmonton over the summer.
The current pause for the Bruins, which also placed a temporary hold on all workouts at the club’s Brighton facility, added three games to the Bruins’ list of postponements that already included their visit Saturday night to Montreal.
The additional Bruins postponements are Sunday’s matinee in Ottawa and the next two home games at TD Garden: Tuesday vs. Carolina and Thursday vs. Colorado. The league, now adding daily to the number of teams it places in COVID pause, has yet to announce makeup dates for any of the games. Refunds for postponed games are not available.
According to Sweeney, the club’s practice facility now only will be open for players in need of treating injuries or for ongoing rehab, an established league standard amid the shutdowns.
None of the Bruins players or coaching staff stepped foot or skate on Warrior Ice Arena’s playing surface Saturday morning. The ice was prepped, glimmering like highly polished white marble. A couple of dozen pucks sat stacked atop the boards near where the Bruins normally file out from the dressing room.
As a club PR representative notified the three reporters in the press box around 11 a.m. that the workout was called off, a member of the equipment staff quietly removed the pucks. A few stragglers in the stands and a couple of videographers packed up and made their way out of the Guest Street facility.
No telling when workouts will resume. Sweeney said players might be advised to start back in small groups rather than full team practices — a practice akin to the league restart in 2020.
Ideally, the Bruins would be back on the ice at least once prior to their next game, currently on the books for a Dec. 27 visit by the Penguins. The following two games would have the Bruins in Ottawa Dec. 29, followed by a Sabres visit here for a 1 p.m. matinee on New Year’s Day.
“It will be challenging to think that a player will be off the ice, arguably a couple of players from [Dec. 12-13], and conceivably have a morning skate on the 27th, and then play that night,” Sweeney noted. “Again, we just have to navigate as the league sets forth and move on from there.”
No practices can be held Dec. 24 through 26 , in accordance with the league’s traditional holiday shutdown.
Asked if he would consider requesting that the Dec. 27 game be bumped to a later date, Sweeney said, “Yes and no . . . I think you have to understand what the level playing field is for everybody across the league and make the best decisions.”
According to Sweeney, none of the 11 team members on the COVID list as of Saturday night was experiencing serious symptoms. Most, he said, were asymptomatic or had light symptoms. One, he said, might be considered to be in the “moderate” category.
Late on Friday, the NHL and the NHLPA players’ union reinstated many of the stringent COVID protocols and practices that governed on- and off-ice behavior going back to summer 2020.
The revived do’s and don’ts again will have players submit to frequent COVID testing, wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, and, perhaps hardest of all, barely ever venturing out from team hotels on the road, be it to go to dinner or otherwise socialize.
In short, it amounts to a soft, albeit no doubt annoying, lockdown. Most young athletes revel in the road lifestyle, be it for the chance to bond with teammates or pursuing other socializing experiences. All those perks once again have been trimmed.
The Bruins and Predators added to the number of teams the league placed on pause in recent days, dating to Calgary going dark the day after the Bruins played there Dec. 11.
On Friday, the league also shut down Florida and Colorado, both clubs with rosters severely diminished by mounting COVID numbers. Earlier in the season, both the Islanders and Senators were forced to go dark.
“I’ve watched this with our club,” said one sympathizing team exec, who asked not to be identified. “Once the spread starts in the room, it’s a full month to get it right again, where guys feel healthy, back to being themselves. None of our guys got too sick, thankfully, but boy, competitively, it can do a number on a team.”
Had the Bruins played in Ottawa on Sunday afternoon, attendance would have been capped at 50 percent (roughly 9,000 total), and the concession stands closed. Thursday night in Montreal, the Canadiens played the Flyers and the Bell Centre was empty, fans prohibited from attending.
It’s almost Christmas, and it’s beginning to look a lot like COVID is the lump of coal in every hockey fan’s stocking.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.