The NHL said Wednesday it has never dangled relaxed restrictions for fully vaccinated players, in response to Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner saying the league “lied to us about things changing to kind of force us to the take the vaccine.”
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote in an email that loosened restrictions were previously “a topic that’s been discussed internally” and with the NHL Players’ Association.
“But no decision has ever been made, nor has anything ever been communicated to the Players,” Daly wrote.
In fact, the NHL emphasized to its general managers in a virtual league-wide meeting on Wednesday that teams must stay the course and remain diligent following the COVID-19 protocols that have been in place all season.
Just last week, the Vancouver Canucks returned to the ice following 22 days away after nearly the entire roster was stricken with a highly-contagious variant.
But Lehner went after the league in his media availability, saying “we are vaccinated and we are still trapped in a prison.” He later clarified his remarks in a Twitter thread and apologized for likening his situation to prison, but doubled down on his request for the league to take players’ mental health into account.
Lehner has been vocal about his treatment and diagnosis of bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and his alcohol and drug addiction.
“At some point, we’ve got to start looking at the mental health of people around us,” Lehner said. “Not just the NHL, but everyone in society and see how we can start getting back to normalcy. Because the problem is going to be huge.”
There is no question that the NHL’s players have made extraordinary sacrifices to enable this 56-game season to be completed. Players have largely been limited to the rink and team hotels while travelling – even visits to restaurants in their home cities have been strongly discouraged.
Lehner said the league has declined to loosen restrictions, like MLB and the NBA have agreed to do once certain thresholds have been met, because of “competitive advantage.”
“It’s outrageous,” Lehner said.
The NHL has closely monitored vaccination rates of its players. The NHLPA has also recently requested information from teams to gather vaccination data.
More than 40 per cent of the United States’ total population has received at least one vaccine dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with everyone over the age of 16 eligible to receive the dose. But only 25 per cent of Canadians have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and generally only residents over the age of 40 are eligible now.
The NHL has been very careful to not have its constituents jump the line for the vaccine. Toronto Maple Leafs forward Joe Thornton is the only NHL player in Canada over the age of 40.
With that, the NHL has no plans to loosen its restrictions in an attempt to finish off the season. Since the 2020-21 campaign started on Jan. 13, the NHL has only strengthened protocols and enhanced testing as it has seen 49 games postponed, moved countless others to rearrange the schedule, and had more than 180 different players from 30 of the 31 teams sidelined on the COVID-19 protocol list.
GM MEETINGS UPDATE
> The NHL shared with GMs on Wednesday a tentative date to open the 2021-22 season, when the Seattle Kraken will officially join the fray: Oct. 12, the day after Thanksgiving. That is about a week later than usual; training camps are also tentatively scheduled to open on Sept. 22.
> What the NHL did not reveal on Wednesday was the planned start of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Games are now scheduled through Sunday, May 16, as the NHL vows to complete the 56-game slate in its entirety. It is possible that the three U.S. divisions drop the puck on the playoffs that May 15 weekend, while the North Division finishes out the slate.
> One of the hot topics of conversation on the virtual call was 19-year-old NHL prospects as they relate to the NHL-CHL transfer agreement. With the Ontario Hockey League formally ending its bid to return to the ice this week, that means top prospects such as Winnipeg’s Cole Perfetti and Los Angeles’ Quinton Byfield will be allowed to finish the season in the AHL. How then would those players be forced to return to junior hockey next year after a full professional season? No decisions were made on the call. But as TSN reported, there is an appetite among GMs for an exception to be made to the agreement, if not a full-scale change. The agreement is set to expire again this summer.
Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli