Back in September it appeared the hockey community had drawn a collective sigh of relief. After a broken 2019-20 season, followed by an abbreviated 2020-21 campaign, it looked like a full 82-game season — without disruption — finally might be in the cards.
It didn’t take long to dispel that notion.
Teams such as Calgary and the New York Islanders had players come down with COVID early on and the postponed games began to mount.
Still there was hope, at least until December when something called the Omicron variant hit the sport like a slapshot off the faceshield.
The Flyers had been through this once before when a slew of players, headlined by captain Claude Giroux, took ill in February, 2021.
But that was small change compared to what’s been going on the past few weeks. Both Giroux and Scott Laughton have hit the dreaded C-19 list twice and now they have been joined by first-timers at various times by Sean Couturier, Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim, Travis Konecny, Derick Brassard, Max Willman and Carter Hart. Among lesser lights: Nick Seeler and Jackson Cates.
The list of those who have managed to stay healthy continues to shrink.
Hart, for one, just can’t contain his frustration with the NHL’s policy of making players wait for a week or more before they are cleared to play. Even players who are vaccinated and asymptomatic have to miss important games.
“It’s tough,’’ Hart said after Tuesday night’s game at Anaheim. “Guys have no symptoms or mild symptoms. The league has to find a way to change that (isolation period). We’re either going to be playing shorthanded all season long or we’re going to keep having games postponed. I think it’s a joke. It has to change.’’
Just like the NFL and the NBA, the NHL looks determined to plow ahead with its slate of games until its scheduled conclusion. The Flyers have only had three games postponed so far but some of that is luck because they were able to avoid trips to Canada when Omicron struck.
Hart does have a point. At some point, if all players (vaccinated) are willing to accept the risk of being in the same room with a player or players who have possibly tested positive, shouldn’t that be the collective group’s right to push forward?
Of course, the only way that system works is if the entire rosters of all 32 teams agreed to that arrangement. Those who cast a dissenting vote could always opt out, as a number of baseball and football players have done over the past two years.
Short of that, Hart is right. Teams will have to continue to use borderline AHL/NHL players for the forseeable future and muddle on.
There’s probably no right or wrong here. The players were willing to give up the plan for NHL stars to play in the Olympics in order to the league a window to reschedule dozens of postponed games.
Hopefully, the current variant loses momentum in a short timeframe and the number of infections drops. The frustration level is high and the last thing most teams need is an unwanted 800-pound gorilla in the room.
Interim coach Mike Yeo noted hockey players endure a lot of pain from injuries suffered during games and practices. Then a silent foe like COVID comes along and puts players on the shelf, even if they feel perfectly fine.
“You can understand why there would be some frustration, some disappointment,’’ said Yeo in response to a question about the recent end of Ivan Provorov’s 403-game ironman streak due to COVID. “We all share concern for what’s going on in the world. But you can understand why some players would find it difficult – when you have guys who play with broken ribs, broken feet and then when they get COVID they feel completely fine.’’
>Streak is one for the ages
A few more words about Provorov’s amazing achievement.
Yeo paid probably the ultimate tribute to Provorov the other day when he pointed out the streak is not only amazing in its own right but is even more impressive because the Russian is a defenseman who gives it his all every night – whether it’s blocking shots or playing the better part of half the game.
“It’s very, very difficult to get (that many games),’’ Yeo said. “You look at ‘Provy,’ how hard he plays. He’s never a guy who doesn’t go back, take a hit to make a play. He’s never going to be a guy who moves out of the way of a shot – he blocks shots on the penalty kill. To end this way is disappointing but that streak is incredibly impressive.’’
>Briere a worthy candidate
The Montreal Canadiens are in the market for a new general manager and one of the more prominent names being mentioned as a strong candidate is ex-Flyer Danny Briere.
Since his retirement from the game, Briere has been working in the front office of the ECHL Maine Mariners, learning the ropes.
We believe Briere would make an excellent GM for the storied Montreal franchise. He even played one season for the Canadiens toward the end of his career, so he’s familiar with the culture. Plus, French is his first language.
Briere is one of the brightest hockey thinkers we’ve ever come across. He can talk strategy, personnel, history of the game with the best of them. Plus, he was a big-time player when it mattered most, the playoffs. He remains the Flyers’ alltime leader for points in a single year postseason (30) and finished his NHL career with 116 points in 124 playoff games.
Perhaps the only thing which might hold Briere back is his lack of NHL front office experience. But if the Canadiens do decide to take a chance on Briere, they might be pleasantly surprised.