NEW YORK – The NHL and its players association temporarily clamped down on teams crossing the Canadian border and shut down operations of two more teams on Sunday for a total of seven in hopes of salvaging the season as COVID-19 outbreaks spread across the league.
The Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs were added to the list of teams told to shut down operations, joining the Colorado Avalanche, Florida Panthers, Calgary Flames, Nashville Predators and Boston Bruins.
Canadian-based teams will not play U.S.-based teams from Monday through Thursday ahead of the league's holiday break (Dec. 24 through Dec. 26). Those postponed games are expected be rescheduled.
The league said the decision was made, in part, because of the “fluid nature of federal travel restrictions.”
“We will continue to play the 2021-22 regular season schedule,” the NHL and NHLPA said Sunday in a joint statement. “Although there has been a recent increase in positive COVID test results among players, coaches and hockey staff, there have been a low number of positive cases that have resulted in concerning symptoms or serious illness.”
All told, 27 games have been postponed through Saturday and 12 more through Thursday will be pushed to another date. Roughly 10% of the 700-plus players were in the league’s virus protocol as of Saturday.
The Los Angeles Kings were supposed to host the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday, but that's been postponed. Kings coach Todd McLellan said it's “a very uneasy time right now for the players and the people who are involved in the game.”
“What’s strange for us ... is that we have players for the most part that are feeling perfectly fine that are being pulled from the game. We’ve got a bit of a flu bug, cough, the typical winter stuff going through our team. Those players are playing, which is odd, but I get the protocols," he said. "I get the health directives, and I do believe we’re in good hands.”
McLellan added that it's difficult at this time of the year because "there’s little ones at home with wives, and family becomes really, really important and we’ll have a bunch of happy players that are getting on that plane, and the ones that we have to leave behind, we’re going to get them home. We’ll figure out a way.”
The Winnipeg Jets were the only Canadian team playing Sunday -- hosting and beating the St. Louis Blues 4-2 -- after three games involving Canadian teams already were postponed.
“I think the big thing is when you win a hockey game you want to play the next day,” Jets interim coach Dave Lowry said. “This will take us out of it for a couple days. But what it will allow us to do is get back and work on some details in our game that we hope to continue to improve on.”
Jets center Mark Scheifele said the team learned of the postponements moments after the game.
“You never know right now,” he said. “You could see it coming kind of, we weren’t really sure, so obviously we know now and waiting to see what all transpires. We’ll keep rolling with the punches.”
All of the COVID-19 disruptions may lead to NHL players staying home instead of participating in the Winter Olympics in less than two months. The NHL has said players can compete in Beijing unless the coronavirus becomes a problem.
The league has until Jan. 10 to opt out of the Winter Games without financial penalty, but it retains the right to cancel its plans up until players are scheduled to travel to Beijing. The NHL and NHLPA said it will announce a final decision in the coming days.
Scheifele called the uncertainty “concerning.”
“It’s not in our hands anymore, you know what I mean? You just got to trust in the plan and just keep on doing what you do ... and hope for the best," he said.
Detroit’s home game against Colorado on Monday had been postponed because of the Avs' COVID pause, and the Red Wings’ trip to Minnesota for Thursday’s game was called off. The Maple Leafs had only one game on the schedule ahead of the holiday break, but the cross-border decision already postponed it.
To slow the spread of the coronavirus, the NHL and the NHLPA agreed to daily testing and other enhanced protocols through Jan. 1, with an evaluation no later than Jan. 7. ___
AP freelance writer Rich Dubroff contributed to this report.
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