The Omicron wave is battering hockey at the highest levels

December 21, 2021
The Omicron wave is battering hockey at the highest levels
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This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports’ daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what’s happening in sports by subscribing here.

Hockey is being battered by the latest wave of the pandemic

The severity of (and our response to) the Omicron variant may still be up for debate. But this is certain: it’s having a major impact on sports. Especially hockey. Here’s a look at how the newest wave of the pandemic is affecting the game on various high-profile levels, including today’s reports that the NHL and its players have decided to skip the Beijing Olympics:

NHL

The league and the players’ union announced last night that they’ve agreed to pause the season starting Wednesday through their Christmas break. That made for eye-catching headlines, but the move isn’t as drastic as it sounds, given all the cancellations that had already occurred. All four games originally scheduled for Wednesday were previously postponed, and only five of the 15 contests initially slated for Thursday were still on the docket. The NHL’s traditional Dec. 24-26 holiday break was always on the books. So this amounts to a slightly elongated Christmas vacation — at least for now.

The plan is for teams to reconvene on Boxing Day for testing and practice. Games are set to resume Monday with enhanced protocols in place. But we’ll see how many of the 14 on the schedule for that night actually happen. More than 15 per cent of the NHL’s 700-plus players are currently in the league’s COVID-19 protocol. Fifty games have been postponed already this season (45 since Dec. 13), and 10 teams were in shut-down mode before last night’s announcement.

Not everyone is on board with the NHL’s cautious approach. With every player in the league but one (Detroit’s Tyler Bertuzzi) at least double vaccinated, and those who have tested positive over the last couple of weeks appearing to experience nothing more than mild symptoms, some players are reportedly grumbling about having to miss games when they’re not feeling sick. Some would reportedly like to see the NHL be more like the NFL, which responded to a spike in asymptomatic positive tests by tightening rules around teams  experiencing outbreaks but also making it easier for vaccinated and asymptomatic players who test positive to return to practice and games. Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck went on record today as favouring that approach, calling the extended holiday break “overkill” and suggesting the NHL ought to be more flexible. “You see leagues like the NFL who are adapting and, I think, doing things right,” he said.

The Olympics

With all the headaches (figurative more than literal) the NHL is experiencing because of Omicron, hopes that the world’s best players would compete in the men’s hockey tournament in Beijing this February were dangling by the thinnest of threads. This afternoon, they were all but severed with reports that the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association have jointly reached a decision to pull out.

At our publish time, they hadn’t made it official yet, but this would track with all indications given by the joint statement from the league and the players on Sunday saying they were “actively discussing” participation in the Olympics and expected to reach a final decision “in the coming days.” The deadline for them to withdraw without financial penalty isn’t until Jan. 10, so if an announcement is happening this soon you have to figure it’s to say they’re pulling the plug. Expectations are it’ll come tonight or tomorrow.

The world’s best women’s hockey players are still on track to go to Beijing. However, an exhibition game between Canada and the U.S. last night in Minnesota was cancelled. Canada was supposed to announce its Olympic roster tomorrow, but that was pushed back indefinitely. Canada and the U.S. are scheduled to play the final two games of their nine-game exhibition tour on Jan. 3 and 6 in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alta.

World juniors

Speaking of international hockey in Edmonton and Red Deer, those towns are still set to co-host the world junior championship starting on Boxing Day. Not only that, but the plan is still to allow full capacity in the arenas. That includes the Oilers’ 18,000-seat building. As of last Friday, Hockey Canada said 90 per cent of tickets were sold.

The event hasn’t arrived completely unscathed, though: the 10 teams were supposed to each play two or three exhibition games, but the warmup slate was reduced to one game for each team. They’ll all happen Thursday, with Canada facing Russia. Canada’s first game in the tournament proper is on Sunday at 7 p.m. ET vs. the Czech Republic.

Reports: NHL players will not participate in Beijing Olympics

With the COVID-19 cases (and game postponements) piling up, the league and its players agreed to withdraw from the Beijing Olympics. 3:26

Quickly…

Maggie Mac Neil has all of the gold medals. The 21-year-old Canadian swimmer was already the undisputed queen of the 100-metre butterfly after winning the world championship in 2019 and Olympic gold last summer. Today, she added the short-course world title to her collection with a victory in the 25m pool in Abu Dhabi. It was Mac Neil’s fourth gold medal of the meet, which wrapped up today. She also won the 50m backstroke and was part of two Canadian relay teams that won gold. Canada’s seven gold medals — Tessa Cieplucha (400m medley) and Sydney Pickrem (200m medley) were the other individual champs — trailed only the United States’ nine. Canada’s total of 15 medals put it in a tie for third with Russia (behind the Americans’ 30 and Italy’s 16) and nearly doubled the country’s previous high of eight medals at the short-course worlds, set in 1999 and 2016. Read more about Mac Neil’s golden swim and the rest of the final-day highlights here.

Canada’s Olympic mixed doubles curling trials will go ahead as scheduled. The tournament to decide who will defend the gold medal won in 2018 by John Morris and Kaitlyn Lawes is still a go for Dec. 28-Jan. 2 in Portage la Prairie, Man., organizers announced today. Attendance will be capped at 50 per cent, while athletes, officials and staff will be “restricted to a “bubble-like atmosphere” and “subject to regular testing,” according to Curling Canada. Morris and Lawes are no longer a team, and Lawes would have been ineligible anyway. She earned a spot in the women’s event in Beijing as part of skip Jennifer Jones’ team, and Curling Canada has a policy of not allowing anyone to compete in multiple events at the same Olympics. Morris now plays with three-time Scotties winner Rachel Homan. The other marquee pairing in the 16-team field is two-time Scotties champion Kerri Einarson and former Brier and Olympic champ Brad Jacobs. Einarson was with Brad Gushue, but he had to bow out after winning the Canadian men’s trials. CBC Sports is live-streaming every game at the mixed doubles trials, starting next Tuesday at 10 a.m. ET.

You’re up to speed. Talk to you tomorrow.

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Life is like a running cycle right! I am a news editor at TIMES. Collecting News is my passion. Because my visitors have the right to know the truth and perfectly.

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