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Frank Seravalli

TSN Senior Hockey Reporter

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The NHL will relax its COVID-19 protocol for fully vaccinated teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs, according to a memo distributed to clubs on Friday.

The modified protocol will allow playoff-bound players greater freedoms with regards to masks, testing, team meetings, social gatherings and travel - once 85 per cent of a team’s traveling party is fully vaccinated.

The NHL considers a person fully vaccinated once two weeks have passed since receiving the final dose of an approved COVID-19 vaccine.

According to a source, the expectation is anywhere from five to seven of the 12 playoff-bound American teams will meet the league's "fully vaccinated" threshold of 85 per cent by the start of the playoffs. As of Friday, the U.S. teams ranged from a low of zero fully vaccinated players to 97 per cent fully vaccinated players.

The majority of U.S. teams, the source said, are hovering around 50 per cent fully vaccinated. That number is expected to grow considering many are partially vaccinated. Keep in mind: the team with zero fully vaccinated players at the moment likely does not tell the whole story. It's at minimum a four to six week process, including the required buffer between doses, as well as the 14-day waiting period after the second dose is administered to fully arm the immune system. Some teams chose to inoculate the entire roster at one time and you don't get counted as "fully vaccinated" until you've completed the timeline.

These protocol changes came less than three weeks after Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner was critical of the league, saying “we are vaccinated and we are still trapped in a prison.”

The relaxed protocols are welcomed news to not just Lehner, but all 12 American-based NHL teams, some of which have already reached the 85-per cent vaccination threshold for their traveling party, which includes players, coaches and team personnel.

"It could be really big, I think, just for the mindset of the players, more than anything, to get back to some sort of normalcy," 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."

Players on Canadian teams will not be as lucky. With slower vaccination rates and limited availability in Canada, the belief is none of the four playoff-bound Canadian clubs are anywhere close to the required 85-per cent threshold.

Some players on the seven Canadian teams have begun to receive their first dose as vaccination age parameters have changed rapidly across the country. But the NHL has been careful to not have any of its players or teams jump the line governed by regional and provincial protocols.

Even though players on Canadian teams have received their first dose, which does increase effectiveness in protecting against COVID-19, the limited supply of vaccine may mean a second dose is months away - making the loosening of these restrictions very unlikely for Canadian clubs this season.

Here are the notable changes to the NHL's protocol:

> Almost all of the accommodations below are made for “fully vaccinated individuals.” As the NHL and its 31 clubs did not make the vaccine mandatory, there are believed to be one to two players per team - in many instances - who chose to not receive the vaccine. Any member of the traveling party who chose not to receive the vaccine must continue to abide by all of the previous (and stringent) preventative measures that were in place in the previous COVID-19 protocol.

> Fully vaccinated individuals may now socially gather in groups of up to eight, now including for the first time others who are not in a club’s traveling party - such as friends and family, so long as each person in the group has also been fully vaccinated. Face coverings and social distancing are not required during those gatherings. The gatherings can occur either indoors or outdoors.

> Masks are no longer required in non-public areas of game arenas and practice facilities for fully vaccinated individuals.

> Team meetings and social gatherings can resume with no face coverings and no requirement to socially distance for vaccinated individuals, but they must be sufficiently distanced from unvaccinated individuals.

> Fully vaccinated players will no longer need to get PCR tested on days off. Similarly, fully vaccinated players will no longer require a rapid test, unless that player did not have a PCR test the previous day.

> Fully vaccinated individuals will now be permitted in the hotel rooms of other fully vaccinated individuals.

> Fully vaccinated individuals will now be permitted to eat on flights and busses.

> Fully vaccinated individuals may now eat and drink at restaurants with outdoor dining.

> Fully vaccinated individuals may gather indoors to dine, with no requirements for masking or social distancing, if a separate section of the restaurant is designated and secured from the rest of the patrons (e.g. a private or reserved room) so long as they are served by a masked restaurant employee.

> Fully vaccinated individuals may golf as a group, and also use saunas and steam rooms at club facilities with other fully vaccinated individuals.

Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravall