NHL revises COVID-19 policy on arena access after players express concerns

The NHL has revised a COVID-19 protocol on arena access just one day after it was established, following emphatic protests from the players.

On Wednesday night, the NHL sent a memo to all of its teams and COVID-19 compliance officers that detailed a handful of new safety protocols. The additional measures came during a week in which the New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres, Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche all postponed multiple games due to outbreaks among players and at least one head coach.

In the memo, the NHL established a new policy on player access to the arena on game night. The protocol stated that players were "not permitted to arrive at the game arena more than 1 hour and 45 minutes before puck drop," unless it was for the treatment of injuries. The rationale was that the restricted entry time would "minimize the period of time for possible exposure and transmission of COVID-19 while Players are gathered at the arena."

On Thursday afternoon, the NHL revised that policy. The new language reads "players and coaching staff are being advised, whenever practicable, to arrive at the game arena no more than 1 hour and 45 minutes before puck drop, except to receive necessary treatment or to engage in preparations in advance of the game." Essentially, the policy went from being a mandate to a suggestion.

The change came after NHL players voiced concerns, publicly and behind the scenes, about the restricted access to the arena.

"There are certain protocols that seem like no-brainers. But as far as that one in particular, it becomes a struggle," one NHL veteran told ESPN. "It's also about the health of the player on the ice: If we're not able to prepare for a game as we regularly prepare, we run the risk of injury. Especially in a season that's more condensed."

Andrew Copp of the Winnipeg Jets said the players "would be fighting [the rule] for sure" in expressing his personal unhappiness with it.

"Some of the protocols obviously in place -- like virtual meetings, the spreading out guys in the room -- I really understand that part," Copp said. "But not being allowed in the facility until an hour and 45 [minutes]? I mean, we got guys that show up here before 4 o'clock for 7 o'clock games. This is pretty much the only place we're allowed to come. We're not going to each other's houses. We're not going to restaurants. We're not, pretty much not, doing anything. The one place that we've made a safe space is the locker room and the rink. I don't see what the difference is between a 5:15 and a 4:15 entrance."

Other players seemed more amenable to the rule, including Alex Tuch, who is the NHLPA rep for the Vegas Golden Knights.

"Obviously, it's a little bit different than what we usually do before games," said Tuch, whose coaching staff and star defenseman Alex Pietrangelo have been in the NHL's COVID-19 protocols this week. "The NHL is working tirelessly to try and prevent COVID spreading as much as possible. Our team is willing to abide by any protocol, and we're going to continue to do so as long as the league sees it necessary. We know firsthand what it can do."

Detroit head coach Jeff Blashill said the NHL's concerns about the arena are understandable.

"The problem in ice hockey is that we play in a rink where the humidity is dry and the air is cool. My understanding, in the research I've done, is that it potentially lets that virus sit right there in the air. It doesn't dissipate," he said. "So we're in this situation that we're in. We have to do the best we can. The fact that games are getting postponed is unfortunate. But from our perspective, we have to do the best that we can with the protocols in place."

The other newly established COVID-19 protocols for the NHL included the removal of glass shielding behind the benches for better air circulation, game-day meetings being conducted virtually, the potential deployment of air filtration units around player benches and a mandate that teams submit plans for their home and away dressing rooms that put at least 6 feet between players at their stalls.

"Our priority has been and will continue to be to act conservatively with an abundance of caution, understanding that there are many things about the transmission of COVID-19 that are still being discovered," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "As a result, we won't hesitate to take additional measures as indicated by what we are learning and as directed by our medical advisers."

The NHL has had around 100 players on its "COVID Protocol Related Absences" list this season, for everything from positive tests to mandatory travel quarantines. It has postponed 22 games so far in the 2021 campaign.

Sources told ESPN that there has been a renewed push to get rapid COVID-19 testing to go along with its daily PCR testing. The NBA is currently using rapid tests before tipoff of each game. While some NHL arenas have rapid testing for those who enter the building, daily rapid testing of players has been used only "where deemed helpful or necessary," according to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly. That includes when a team returns from a slate of postponed games.

According to sources, the biggest concern about widespread rapid testing in the NHL isn't as much about cost as it is about finding the inventory of tests necessary to accomplish that task on a daily basis.