The NHL is revising its coronavirus protocols for the playoffs once teams hit vaccination thresholds, the league announced Saturday.
The changes, for now, affect only United States-based teams, as Canada is much further behind in its vaccine rollout.
The NHL informed teams Friday night that once 85% of a traveling party is fully vaccinated, it can have greater freedoms. That includes gathering in social groups of up to eight people indoors or outdoors. Players will be able to gather in each other's hotel rooms and eat on flights and buses. Players also will be allowed to eat and drink at restaurants with outdoor dining.
"The only thing we've missed is those team bonding [meals], going out to dinner and kind of going to those small-group type things where you really get to know a teammate that way," veteran Washington Capitals goaltender Craig Anderson said Saturday. "As far as meals at the hotels and whatnot, we still can kind of get together for the most part and it feels for the most part as normal as can be considering the circumstances."
According to the new protocols, masks will not be required in the practice facility or in nonpublic areas of arenas for fully vaccinated individuals. Also, fully vaccinated players and coaches will no longer need to undergo PCR testing on off days.
"It could be really big, I think, just for the mindset of the players, more than anything, just to get back to some sort of normalcy," Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour said Saturday. "The playoffs are a grind, just like this season has been, so any type of getting your mind away from it by being around the guys I think will help."
Fully vaccinated players will be allowed to use saunas and steam rooms at team facilities and valet-park their cars. The NHL also said players are allowed to play golf as a group, as long as they do not enter the clubhouse or indoor areas.
The NHL had remained one of the strictest leagues in North America when it came to COVID-19 protocols. The NBA and MLB have already eased restrictions for teams once they hit an 85% vaccination threshold.
Along with players, coaches and other staff, fully vaccinated officiating crews can also take advantage of the relaxed protocols if both teams of a playoff series they are working are considered fully vaccinated.
"They told me yesterday that they're surveying all the teams to see who has taken the vaccine and who has not taken the vaccines, and they're not going to change the rules for us as players until all the players have the vaccine at the same time so it's not a competitive edge," Lehner said in an impassioned news conference in April. "That made me go crazy, to be honest. This is human lives and people are struggling with this stuff a lot in society, and we are humans as everyone else."
Lehner, who has been an advocate for mental health, said he believed the league's stringent policies were affecting players' mental health.
The NHL disputed some of Lehner's claims. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN at the time that the league and players' association had been discussing the possibilities of easing restrictions but had yet to come to a final conclusion.
Sources told ESPN that with the majority of players on U.S.-based teams being offered access to vaccination, the NHL felt that it could ease restrictions for the playoffs.
"It'll be great," Hurricanes defenseman Brady Skjei said. "It'll be nice for us to be able to go out for lunch or dinner and sit out on a patio. We haven't been able to do that for a while. Just to get that team bonding, that part of it. We've obviously been together the whole year and been in the hotel rooms together. But, yeah, it'll be awesome to get outside and get some fresh air."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.