A handful of COVID-19 positive tests might not have felt like a big deal to NHL officials.
Until Friday, that is.
Before that, having 10 players out of about 750 forced into quarantine seemed like a workable number.
Then came double-barrel bad news: First, the Tampa Bay Lightning saw five people (three players, two staff personnel) test positive in one day, forcing the team to close its training facility.
After this perhaps an even worse development – that being Toronto star player Auston Matthews also going down for the count after working out in Arizona with some other NHL players.
All this coming on a day when baseball got slammed with horrible test results (see Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants, Toronto Blue Jays).
Talk about bad optics.
And all this before training camps have yet to start.
All along, hockey has insisted things were going to be OK because the makeshift Stanley Cup playoffs were to be contested in two “hub’’ cities with bubble-like cleaning procedures, daily testing, social distancing, etc.
But there’s been no mention of any sort of considerations for local rinks’ informal workouts, which began on June 8, or training camps, slated to start on July 10.
What if dozens of players get sick along the way before official play even commences in early August?
While we’re at it, has anyone heard anything from health officials about players who do get sick?
Once they get over initial symptoms, quarantine and are no longer considered a health risk (i.e., contagious), can such players return to action and expect to be able to play at full strength again, at least for the completion of this season?
When it comes to players sharing their feelings about health and safety, at least for public consumption, it’s been awfully quiet.
From various media reports, one gets the impression we’re still a bit short of reaching a tipping point.
The players must understand this whole operation is a house of cards anyway. A lot of it is based on preventing huge financial losses, including TV money.
As Associated Press hockey writer John Wawrow stated in an article this past week, the NHL is pushing this play at almost any cost plan because of the whole sense of uncertainty surrounding the pandemic.
“At least 10 teams have laid off employees or announced indefinite furloughs, with many executives taking pay cuts,’’ the article pointed out. “Just this week, the Sabres made a drastic series of cost-cutting moves by firing general manager Jason Botterill and his assistants, 12 of 21 scouts and their entire minor league coaching staff. Owner Terry Pegula specifically cited uncertain times raised by the pandemic, and a desire to become a “leaner” and “more efficient” operation.’’
Behind the scenes, the players know the league is in a precarious situation. Games can’t be played in front of fans, yet fans provide much of the league’s revenue through ticket sales, merchandise, concessions, parking, etc. Perhaps a much higher percentage than TV-rich sports such as football and basketball.
“Players are bracing for lost salaries by continuing to defer whether to receive their final paychecks,’’ Wawrow noted. “They are also in jeopardy of losing the portion of pay put aside in an escrow account, which rolls over to the owners should revenue fall short of projections; players have lost upward of 10 percent of their pay to escrow over the past seven-plus seasons and it is a major issue in upcoming labor talks.’’
Translation: The next collective bargaining agreement negotiations coming up in a couple years could become rather contentious.
Which brings us back to that debate of risk vs. reward. Are the players willing to put their health, and perhaps the welfare of their families, on the line for the sake of completing a season?
Remember, the players allowed the owners to trash a whole season (2004-05) to fight off the notion of a salary cap. A notion they lost, by the way.
How many are too many? It’s only late June and already the positive tests are mounting. At least one star player already could be out of the picture.
If this isn’t a wakeup call, we don’t know what is.