Calgary Flames goaltender Jacob Markstrom celebrates with teammates after defeating the Montreal Canadiens in an NHL hockey game in Montreal, Saturday, January 30, 2021. Markstrom’s routine is pretty simple in the NHL’s COVID-19 era, but the same can’t be said for players south of the border. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Calgary Flames goaltender Jacob Markstrom celebrates with teammates after defeating the Montreal Canadiens in an NHL hockey game in Montreal, Saturday, January 30, 2021. Markstrom’s routine is pretty simple in the NHL’s COVID-19 era, but the same can’t be said for players south of the border. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

As NHL deals with COVID-19 in U.S., Canadian-based players thankful for North Division

At one point this week, five NHL teams in the U.S. were sitting idle because of the league’s COVID-19 protocols

Jacob Markstrom’s routine is pretty simple in the NHL’s COVID-19 era.

The Calgary Flames goalie goes to the rink and gets tested before hitting the ice for practice. When that’s done, he heads home to make food, watch TV and go to bed.

Rinse. Repeat.

That’s pretty much what life is currently like for players across the North Division — a one-time-only circuit featuring all seven Canadian franchises borne out of necessity due to pandemic travel restrictions.

“It’s been a lot easier with the rules and the restrictions we have here in Canada to stay healthy,” Markstrom said.

The same, however, can’t be said south of the border, where coronavirus infection rates are much higher and government-mandated public heath measures often more lax.

At one point this week, five NHL teams in the U.S. were sitting idle because of the league’s COVID-19 protocols.

The New Jersey Devils won’t play again until at least Tuesday, the Buffalo Sabres and Minnesota Wild are off until Thursday, while the Colorado Avalanche won’t see action again until Feb. 14. The Vegas Golden Knights had four games postponed before returning to the ice Friday.

Players and coaches in Canada are thankful the story is much different here, but are also aware it’s no time to let their guard down.

“We’ve still got to be cautious and take the precautions seriously, and make sure we’re not doing anything stupid to put ourselves at risk,” Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. “Luckily our division’s been good with it. Let’s just hope that can continue.”

All told, 26 games south of the border have been postponed since the season opened Jan. 13, impacting 16 of the league’s 24 U.S.-based teams. There are currently 41 players deemed “unavailable” on the league’s protocol list — being included doesn’t necessarily mean there’s been a positive test — but only one is from a Canadian team, Winnipeg Jets centre Pierre-Luc Dubois, who’s in the final stages of his quarantine after a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Roughly 100 players have appeared on the COVID-19 list just over three weeks into the season, but NHL commission Gary Bettman said in a statement this week fewer than half had confirmed positive tests.

“We’ve been fortunate in the (North) Division,” Toronto Maple Leafs winger Zach Hyman said. “We have to stay diligent.”

Teams are only allowed at the hotel, arena and airport when on the road during a 56-game season that features division-only play, but the situation on the ground is completely different in Canada compared to the many parts of the U.S.

“It’s a lot easier for us to have a clean sheet,” Flames defenceman Christopher Tanev said. “We can’t really do anything. It’s a pretty full lockdown.”

Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said the issues with some American teams — on top of games being postponed, practice facilities are also shuttered — is a reminder the virus remains a threat across the board.

“We’ve got to be responsible despite the fact here in Canada we’ve done a good job of avoiding (similar) situations,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of friends inside the league and outside the league in the U.S.

“They’re trying to manage it the best they can.”

Montreal Canadiens winger Paul Byron, also his team’s NHL Players’ Association representative, feels fortunate to only be playing in Canada this season.

“Our government’s done a really good job trying to limit (the virus) and eliminate exposures,” he said. “Other than going to the rink and going home, there’s really nowhere else to go right now. It makes it pretty easy as a hockey player to not put yourself at risk.

“We have a really good chance here in Canada to keep playing.”

As a husband and father of three, Oilers forward Kyle Turris said his mind is at more at ease playing in the North Division.

“You still have the concern of the virus,” he said. “But it just seems like in the U.S. (the virus) spreads more and at a faster rate, and it’s a little less cautious.

“It’s something you consider and think about, at times, having a family.”

Byron, meanwhile, added he has sympathy for players in the U.S.

“Where some of those teams are, the cases are really bad,” he said. “Every time they leave their house they’re unfortunately in a position to be exposed. We’re pretty lucky to be here in Canada.”

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease expert at the University of Toronto who has advised the NHLPA during the pandemic, said higher case counts in the U.S. means players are slightly more at risk to get the virus, even when following league protocols.

“You can do everything right and still lose,” he said, noting a player’s wife or child could pick up the virus in the community. “The risk of that is just going to be higher wherever there’s a greater community burden and, sadly, there’s a greater community burden in the United States.

“That doesn’t mean that Canada’s zero risk — everyone has to be careful. It’s just a higher risk where there’s a higher community burden.”

Apart from the 213 pages of health measure unveiled before the start of the season, the NHL revised some of its rules this week.

The glass behind the benches has been removed for better air flow, players and coaches aren’t allowed inside arenas until one hour 45 minutes before puck drop unless they’re receiving treatment for injuries, and all team meetings must be virtual.

“You’ve got to roll with the punches,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “It’s not a normal season. It’s not a normal anything right now.

“You have to make a few sacrifices.”

Jets head coach Paul Maurice said having a couple of players from his team on the protocol list last month was a wake-up call.

“It keeps everybody on their toes,” he said. “We’re not perfect, but we try to be.”

Byron said he expects further measures from the league in the coming weeks and months.

“Things are going to tighten and protocols are going to change,” he said.

Vancouver Canucks defenceman Nate Schmidt, whose former teammates in Vegas were recently sidelined, said it’s difficult for players to ramp back up after extended time off.

“It’s a bummer,” he said. “You’re playing and you’re in that routine and all of the sudden, you’re out, you’re done. It doesn’t matter if you had (the virus) or not.

“It’s just a lot of uncertainty.”

Tanev said the challenge for North Division clubs moving forward will come when some restrictions are inevitably relaxed in different jurisdictions.

“As stuff opens … it’s going to be harder for us,” he said. “We’ve got to keep the same discipline.”

Canadiens head coach Claude Julien said that while the virus will continue hanging over the schedule — even north of the border — his team and its six opponents are in a good spot.

“COVID’s everywhere right now,” said the 60-year-old. “We’ve been fortunate enough to stay away from it.

“Every day we keep crossing our fingers that it keeps going that way.”

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Just Posted

A screenshot of the First Peoples Cultural Councils First Peoples’ Map. (First Peoples Cultural Council)
Online resource blends B.C.’s Indigenous language, art and culture

North Saanich advisor says initiative supports urgent need to preserve Indigenous languages

Marine biologist Rick Harbo pulls a lid from the Ladysmith harbour, which he uses to monitor the presence of native and non-native species in the Ladysmith harbour. (Cole Schisler photo)
Unidentified sponge may be the latest marine species invading Ladysmith Harbour

Marine biologist finding dozens of alien species in warm-water harbour, none of them threatening

Staff member Lena Laitinen gives the wall at BoulderHouse a workout during a media tour on June 16. (Rick Stiebel/News Staff)
BoulderHouse raring to rock Langford

Popularity of bouldering continues to climb across Greater Victoria

General manager Lindsey Pomper says Sidney’s Star Cinema cannot wait welcome audiences when it reopens June 18, amid an easing of public health measures. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Sidney’s Star Cinema raises curtain for the first time after months in the darkness

Iconic theatre to reopen at half capacity for Friday night showing

A dogs in parks pilot study unanimously approved by Saanich council will evaluate how park space can best be shared between dog owners and non-owners alike. (Photo by Megan Atkins-Baker/News Staff)
Saanich to study park-sharing strategy between those with and without pets

District-wide People, Parks and Dogs study to produce recommendations by fall

Maxwell Johnson is seen in Bella Bella, B.C., in an undated photo. The Indigenous man from British Columbia has filed complaints with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal and the Canadian Human Rights Commission after he and his granddaughter were handcuffed when they tried to open a bank account. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Heiltsuk Nation, Damien Gillis, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
VIDEO: Chiefs join human rights case of Indigenous man handcuffed by police in B.C. bank

Maxwell Johnson said he wants change, not just words, from Vancouver police

Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Chief Rosanne Casimir stands outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School after speaking to reporters, in Kamloops, B.C., on Friday, June 4, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Kamloops chief says more unmarked graves will be found across Canada

Chief Rosanne Casimir told a virtual news conference the nation expects to release a report at the end of June

A woman wears a vaccinated sticker after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. ranks among highest in world in COVID-19 first-dose shots: health officials

More than 76% of eligible people have received their 1st shot

An artists conception of the new terminal building at the Pitt Meadows Regional Airport.
Air travel taking off in B.C., but lack of traffic controllers a sky-high concern

There will be demand for more air traffic controllers: Miller

Canadian Armed Forces experts are on their way to North Vancouver after a local homeowner expressed worry about a military artifact he recently purchased. (Twitter DNV Fire and Rescue)
Military called in to deal with antique ‘shell’ at North Vancouver home

‘The person somehow purchased a bombshell innocently believing it was an out-of-commission military artifact’

Amy Kobelt and Tony Cruz have set their wedding date for February, hoping that more COVID-19 restrictions will have lifted. (The Macleans)
B.C. couples ‘gambling’ on whether COVID rules will let them dance at their wedding

Amy Kobelt and Tony Cruz pushed back their wedding in hopes of being able to celebrate it without the constraints of COVID-19

A plane is silhouetted as it takes off from Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., May 13, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Report calls for airlines to refund passengers for flights halted due to COVID-19

Conclusion: federal help should be on the condition airlines immediately refund Canadian travellers

Green party Leader Annamie Paul speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 15, 2021. Paul has survived another day of party strife after a planned ouster shifted course, leaving her with a tenuous grip on power ahead of a likely federal election this year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Green Leader Annamie Paul blasts ‘racist,’ ‘sexist’ party execs who sought ouster

Fallout has continued, with two of the federal council’s members resigning

Most Read