COVID-19 looms large over sporting world as NHL goes dark after Flames outbreak

Jeff Marek joins Sportsnet Central to discuss the state of the NHL and whether players are still planning on playing in the Olympics in February, following the announcement of new quarantine protocols and recent COVID outbreaks around the league.

Midway through an NHL press release no team wants to be a part of came a disturbing reminder of just how slippery a slope the Calgary Flames may be on right now.

Announcing six players and a training staff member had entered the league’s Covid-19 protocol, the Monday morning release explained that part of the decision to postpone their next three games was due to the “likelihood of additional positive cases in the coming days.”

Brace yourself, not just as a hockey fan, but as a human being who wonders daily where all this is going with the Omicron variant threatening to continue canceling more and more things in our lives.

Hours later, the NBA announced an outbreak on the Bulls would postpone two of their games.

It’s all too eerily familiar.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Just like that, the Andrew Mangiapane Olympic debate takes on a whole new look, as the NHL and its players have even more reason to contemplate scrapping talk of attending the Beijing Games.

With Mangiapane, Elias Lindholm, Chris Tanev, Nikita Zadorov, Adam Ruzicka and Brad Richardson joining the list no one wants to be on, there have now been 123 NHL players in Covid protocol this season, which is roughly 17 per cent.

Four of the Flames players in protocol are potential Olympians, making this latest setback for the league more pertinent as officials huddle together to discuss how positive tests would be handled in China.

Flames GM Brad Treliving told sportsnet.ca Monday morning all his players are asymptomatic, which is the best news possible.

“All asymptomatic at this point,” he said. “I’m always careful saying that, as I haven’t spoken to them in the last couple hours. We’re testing families too. Wives, girlfriends, kids. We’re careful with all them. It starts to spider web.

“The priority right now is monitoring guys and making sure they are safe and healthy. Same goes for their families.”

Player testing occurs every three days this season, which means those who tested positive on Sunday could have been infected for several days while closely interacting with everyone on the team.

Moving forward, Flames players will be tested every day, meaning we could have more bad news daily.

The players are bound by league and local health guidelines, which requires isolation for those who tested positive for a minimum of 10 days – longer if you still feel sick.

For those who never develop symptoms, which is a very real possibility for otherwise healthy athletes who are double-vaccinated, the isolation period ends a full ten days after their first positive Covid-19 swab was taken.

That means, at the very least, the Flames will be without the services of their leading goal scorer, their best centre and top defenceman until at least Dec. 21 when they are slated to host Anaheim.

That group will also miss Saturday’s game against Columbus, which is when they are slated to return to playing.

For now.

The Flames have played three teams this season that were ravaged by positive cases – San Jose, Ottawa and the New York Islanders.

The latter two were shut down by the league shortly thereafter as the numbers grew into the double digits and became untenable.

Calgary’s situation is different in that all the positive tests came at once, keeping the door wide open for more bad news to follow. The Flames positive tests were revealed piecemeal.

The first three positive results came in the wee hours of Sunday morning, prompting retesting for everyone upon arrival at the rink Sunday. While waiting for those results the team loaded onto its chartered flight bound for Chicago, where the team was to play Monday.

The plane never took off, after hours of deliberations with team, NHL and medical officials who rightfully decided it wasn’t appropriate to cross the border, given the ramifications of more positive tests being revealed in Illinois, where infected players would have had to quarantine for up to two weeks.

Potentially exposing one another on a plane made no sense either, nor did attempting to coordinate calling up six players en masse for a game halfway across the continent from where the Flames’ affiliate resides in Stockton, Calif.

The team’s Saddledome facility was closed immediately and the players were told to stay home.

The next scheduled event for the team is to practice Friday at Winsport.

We’ll see.

Monday’s game in Chicago and Tuesday’s in Nashville will be rescheduled, as will Thursday’s home date against Toronto.

Don’t be surprised if Saturday’s game is nixed, as it’s a tall order to ask a shorthanded team to play with just one day of practice under its belt.

“Right now the league says games are postponed through Thursday – we’ll see,” said Treliving, who is now anxiously awaiting test results of all his players taken Monday morning.

“I’m focused on this afternoon and how it affects tomorrow.

I’m looking small picture. As you widen the lens, you ask, ‘could we be practicing Friday?’ Who knows?”

And so, we cross our fingers and wait.

Suddenly, a four-game losing skid is the least of the organization’s concerns.

The Flames game was the only one scheduled for Monday, meaning the NHL will go dark.

How symbolic for a league facing the very real possibility it may have to bow out of the Olympic showcase fans and players have been craving since 2014 when NHLers were last included.

In the Flames organization, there are 12 players who could potentially be included on Olympic rosters, which means the possibility of even more positive tests over the coming days in Calgary could continue to send a ripple effect through the five-ring discussion.

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The International Olympic Committee is expected to unveil its players’ handbook as early as Monday, which would detail how positive tests are handled in Beijing.

It will provide crucial information for leaders like Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and Alex Ovechkin who will play a big role in the NHLPA’s participation decision, in light of growing Omicron fears.

Gary Bettman wasn’t shy last week in questioning why players would still consider going to the Games if a positive test meant potentially being stuck in China for three to five weeks.

They may not be considering it much longer.

Every outbreak like the Flames and Bulls are experiencing makes it more and more unlikely we’ll be returning to a normalcy that includes NHLers at the Olympics this time around.

Never mind that, the normalcy we crave in our own lives seems much further away too.

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