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The N.H.L.'s Fights and Handshakes? Not Exactly Socially Distant


As the clock ran out on their season in Edmonton, the desperate Chicago Blackhawks did what any team would: They crowded the net, looking for an opening, anything. Stopped short, the Blackhawks could only watch as the victorious Vegas Golden Knights hugged out their five-game series win. Both teams then removed the gloves they had been wearing, lining up for the handshakes that hockey tradition demands.

Cast in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, the clustering and close-fought commotion of the N.H.L. playoffs might seem like the antithesis of best public health practices, a daily tutorial — a crash course — on how not to social distance.

On the ice in the league’s Toronto and Edmonton bubbles, playoff hockey has also served up a wide range of bodily byproducts, as players shed sweat, spit, blood and teeth, just as always. This N.H.L. postseason hasn’t (yet) seen Boston Bruins left winger Brad Marchand lick anyone, and no one has seen fit to land a tactical kiss, as the Rangers’ Esa Tikkanen did in 1994, but that may have more to do with the threat of league penalties than respect for public health protocols.

As the N.H.L.’s late-summer revival is well into the second round of the playoffs, the games on the ice have been fast and skilled and brash and violent enough such that for viewers watching this sequestered season on TV, it’s possible to forget that the circumstances have never been stranger, that the arenas are fan-free and that it’s summertime.

“There are some relatively minor adjustments to the game environment,” said Bill Daly, the league’s deputy commissioner, who has been surveying the scenes in Canada from New York. “But for the most part, it’s a hockey game. And we’ve been able to stay safe.”

The league decided, in early July, to play its 2019-20 postseason in a pair of Canadian cities where coronavirus infection rates were comparatively low. After weeks of planning and consultation, 744 N.H.L. players, as well as dozens of officials and coaching, medical and support staff, reached their bubble environment toward the end of the month. The two bubbles have held: The N.H.L. has consistently reported since the experiment began that daily testing has to date turned up no positive coronavirus cases in Toronto or Edmonton.

Still, Winne Meeuwisse, the league’s chief medical officer, has tempered his optimism.

“You have an imperfect world when you have the bubble,” he said last week from his base in Calgary. “It’s not 100 percent sealed off, it’s not a biodome. We can try to make it as perfect as we can, but because you can’t, we’ve expected there will be positive tests at some point, and there very well may be, still. We’re not really halfway through yet.”

Andrew Morris has not been professionally involved in the N.H.L.’s reboot, but he’s a sports fan and, as an infectious diseases specialist at Sinai Health and University Health Network in Toronto, an interested observer.

“I think both the N.H.L. and the N.B.A. have been, as it stands right now, really quite successful in getting to this point without too much problem,” he said.

It’s the belief in the integrity of the bubbles, Morris suggested, that has allowed the N.H.L. to return to play without having to tinker with the competitive integrity or pugilistic elements of the game.

That return to regular programming has seen Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche surge through center ice on his way to the net and allowed goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning to concentrate on repudiating pucks.

It also allows for a milieu wherein Montreal’s Philip Danault could mash his glove into the grimace that Philadelphia’s Travis Sanheim was wearing — the time-honored hockey provocation known as the facewash.

Fights, too, have been prevalent, as players have tossed their gloves to punch antagonists as freely and feistily as they might have in the old, carefree days of early March. Through the first 87 postseason games, there were 11 fights — or more than triple the number in the same number of games in last year’s playoffs, according to the website Hockey Fights.

While other sports have drafted more or less explicit guidelines for how players and officials should conduct themselves once the games get going, the N.H.L. preferred to leave most of its on-ice guidance unwritten.

The N.B.A.’s 113-page guide to player health and safety includes bans on spitting and nose-clearing while recommending players and officials stay apart, as much as possible, on the court.

For all the challenges of baseball’s return, Major League Baseball issued an 113-page manual featuring pandemic-inspired rule changes along with bans on touching hands to faces (“including to give signs”). Spitting is forbidden, “including but not limited to, saliva, sunflower seeds or peanut shells, or tobacco.” (Chewing gum is fine.) The league also explicitly prohibits fighting, though it didn’t stop Oakland’s Ramon Laureano, who was suspended for four games recently for his role in a brawl.

Hockey’s return-to-play guidelines don’t stint on details relating to the in-bubble roles of hygiene officers and what happens when someone tests positive for coronavirus along with hotel amenities and dining options. It requires everyone to wash their hands often, suggesting they hum “Happy Birthday” to ensure they do it long enough.

But when it comes to on-ice behaviors, the league’s counsel seems to have been distilled into a single bullet point in a section headed “Safety Precautions”:

“Avoid handshakes, high-fives, and fist bumps.”

“What you’re trying to do in producing a protocol is to have something that is understandable and implementable,” Meeuwisse, the league’s chief medical officer, said. “The simpler the better.”

On handshakes, the players did not remain hands-off for long. As the first team to be ousted from the qualifying round on Aug. 4, the Rangers said their farewell to the Carolina Hurricanes with gloves on, knuckling their respect to the victors. By the time the Columbus Blue Jackets dispensed with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Aug. 9, players were back to the old ways, and it has been flesh-on-flesh ever since.

But other, more fundamental changes haven’t been in the offing this fraught summer. In a league that prefers, even in the before times, not to talk about the fighting it abides, there’s no indication that the plan to get the game back on the ice involved any new discussion of reconfiguring the game to eliminate the punching. With the focus solely on the specter of the coronavirus, the N.H.L.’s attention to other risk factors, like concussions and C.T.E., have remained at their previous settings.

That these playoffs resemble a regular postseason, Daly said, is “a result of the fact that our doctors are comfortable that the nature of contact in hockey is not one where there’s an extended period of close contact.”

While the tenor of the hockey feels familiar, some celebratory traditions may be in jeopardy.

Absent, so far, from the summer spectacle has been the star of the show: Since March, the Stanley Cup, first awarded in 1893, has been biding its time at its permanent home at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

In mid-September, after the second round whittles the field of contenders from eight teams to four, the playoffs will leave Toronto to concentrate entirely in Edmonton. That’s when hockey’s most sought trophy will travel west, in the care of Phil Pritchard, the Hall of Fame vice president and curator who is better known as the keeper of the Cup.

This time last year, Pritchard and the Cup were nearing the end of a summer of celebration. Parading the Cup is a rite that goes back more than a century; in June 2019, an estimated 300,000 people showed up in St. Louis to celebrate the Blues’ first title. The Cup subsequently took its annual international tour of adoring throngs in players’ hometowns, spending 100 days on the road last summer.

Pritchard isn’t certain when that might be possible again. Plans, he said, continue to evolve. “Obviously health and safety is the priority, not only for the winning team, but for their family, friends — for everybody.”

If all goes to script in a year in which so much hasn’t, at some point on or about Oct. 1 Pritchard will be in Edmonton’s bubble to entrust the Stanley Cup to the league’s commissioner, Gary Bettman, who will present it to the new champions.

And then? Usually, players would line up to raise the Cup high, kiss it and start a season of filling the bowl with Champagne and sloshily drinking it. Is any of that advisable in 2020?

The question has crossed Meeuwisse’s mind.

“Would hoisting the Cup be a problem?” he said. “No. Would a lot of shared consumption be a problem? It probably would be.”

Then again, come fall, it will have been almost an entire year since the 2019-20 season got underway. The final two teams will have been sequestered for four months.

“So at that point, is a player going to care enough about it to alter their behavior?” Meeuwisse said.

Morris isn’t so sure. “I think they’ll say, ‘We’ll live with the risk here.’ And that’s true for this disease in general: There are public health issues, and then there are people’s own personal risk assessment issues.”

Meeuwisse said: “I’m just hopeful we get to that point. We’re a long way away from that, and we have a lot of work to do to get there.”

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