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COVID protocols to provide unique challenge for bubble-less NHL teams

The NHL season is set to begin next week, and COVID protocols and regulations are going to play a big part in the months ahead.

Carolina Hurricanes v Boston Bruins - Game One Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

During the summer, it felt like the NHL pulled off a near miracle getting the 2019-20 season restarted and finished, implementing the bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton to ensure a safe, unique ending to a season that was suddenly halted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bubble experiences were relatively seamless, with no real issues arising during the two months that teams were sequestered away in those two Canadian cities.

Now the NHL is about to embark on a likely more daunting challenge, as the 2021 season is set to begin next week without the safeties or benefits that the bubbles offered. Players won’t be isolated, instead spending their time at home, well, at home with their families, while also hitting the road as a pandemic still encompasses the continent.

Things will be much, much different for the Hurricanes and every other team, as they now have to worry not only about the hockey aspect of things, but also about following protocols and staying safe. While the players feel they know what’s going on and what’s expected of them thanks to the league and organization, according to Canes’ captain Jordan Staal, it’s still an unusual road ahead.

“I’m sure there will be hiccups throughout the year,” Staal said. “We need to understand that if somebody gets it, it’s going to hurt the team and it’s going to be bad. You’re gonna be out for a couple weeks, and it’s not good. So, the guys are aware. They understand that no one is immune to this thing, but we’re gonna do our best to stay out of that mess and take care of each other.”

The NHL certainly won’t be the first American sports league dealing with these issues, as MLB, the NFL and now the NBA have all had bubble-less seasons at least begin. For MLB, there were a few, as Staal said, “hiccups” along the way, but the league more or less got a full season in without a major shutdown.

The NFL, which just finished up the final week of its regular season, got things in, but that doesn’t necessarily things went smoothly. When asked about what big issues may arise that he’s seen in other leagues, Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin referenced a situation in which the Denver Broncos were forced to play a game without a quarterback after all their quarterbacks were ruled ineligible to play through contact tracing after a positional meeting.

That issue of contact tracing has been a big talking point in the NFL and college football, and it’s one that Slavin said is something they need to keep in mind. The solution for him is just making sure that everybody is following protocols to a T.

“It’s just making sure that we are following those protocols strictly, and just making sure that nobody is missing a game when they didn’t have to miss a game,” Slavin said. “I think that’s probably the biggest thing that we’re going to have to adjust to and stay honest with.”

Apart from the added protocols and safety measures, there are a lot of other things that will be different when the NHL season starts up next week. Teams are only playing divisional games, in much different divisions, and the season has been shortened significantly.

The schedule looks a lot different as well, with most games coming in pairs; back-to-back games against the same team in the same location over the course of three or four days. That change is something Carolina head coach Rod Brind’Amour said he is all for as someone who isn’t the biggest fan of travelling.

Another big change comes in the form of the weeks leading up to the season, as training camp has been condensed and preseason games have been given the axe. NHL squads will have just eight days of camp before the season, which started Monday for the Canes.

As far as the lack of preseason games goes, the Canes seem to have a mixed bag of feelings on that one. Slavin said he views that as a con, saying he enjoys having those games to get a feel for things. Brind’Amour said the players will probably like not having the preseason while he’ll feel bad missing that chance to see things on the ice before they matter, while Staal said “I think the older you get, the more boring preseasons get.”

But perhaps the biggest change for the Hurricanes this season will come off the ice, as COVID-19 will take away something that is all too important for the success of a team; the ability to spend time together and bond.

“In the past, you talked about getting together and really hanging out,” Brind’Amour said. “Everything that you’ve kind of preached and wanted to see in your guys, you actually now don’t want to see...It is a challenge to try and figure that out. That’s a huge component of any team, is coming together. We’ve got to use our time wisely, I guess, when we are together here”

Now, the Canes and the rest of the NHL won’t get that vital bonding time. There won’t be guys hanging out in the lounges and locker rooms, guys getting together after practices for dinner and drinks.

The team’s time together will be mostly limited to the time on the ice and around the ice, and even that time will look different with social distancing protocols in place. And while that lack of bonding will hit every team hard, this Canes team is maybe built as well as any to handle that.

With a roster that is, for the most part, unchanged from a year ago, this team has already spent plenty of time bonding over the past few years.

“You want a team that’s tight. You want a team that hangs out with each other,” Staal said. “We’re learning on that. We’ll make due. We’ve got the same squad here for a little while, and we’re already close. We’ve got a good squad, so we’re having some fun with it.”

There’s no question that the 2021 NHL season will be unlike any before it, and handling all the changes off the ice will be as important to a team’s success as handling things on the ice. It’s been a crazy couple of months for NHL executives, players and fans alike, but it’s all coming to a head now.

Next Thursday night in Detroit, the puck will drop on a new season of Carolina Hurricanes hockey, and for a couple of hours things might feel somewhat normal again.