Will Lightning’s biggest obstacle in Stanley Cup defense be the coronavirus?

The NHL saw how the pandemic impacted other sports. How will an abbreviated season survive outside a bubble?
Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said players realize that missing time for coronavirus-related reasons in a 56-game season would be detrimental to the team's goal of winning a second straight Stanley Cup.
Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said players realize that missing time for coronavirus-related reasons in a 56-game season would be detrimental to the team's goal of winning a second straight Stanley Cup. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 11, 2021|Updated Jan. 11, 2021

TAMPA — Steven Stamkos has seen other professional sports leagues struggle to keep their players healthy through the coronavirus pandemic. Now, as the NHL proceeds with its first season outside a bubble, the Lightning will face the same challenges as they defend their Stanley Cup title.

Things will start to return to normal — compared to locked-down bubble environments in Toronto and Edmonton for last year’s postseason — as teams play in their own arenas and travel to other cities.

But this season still will be far from typical.

“Guys are going to have to be extremely disciplined,” Stamkos said. “We’ve seen what can happen in the NFL, MLB, the NBA in terms of one guy kind of breaking the rules and other guys who have to quarantine or not be able to play. So we realize the magnitude of that.

“It’s going to be difficult, but the NHL, our teams have done a great job of putting all these different protocols in place and it’s up to us as players to follow them in such a short year that it can’t really afford to have any mishaps and guys be out of the lineup because of COVID(-19).”

The NHL’s health and safety protocols are lengthy and detailed — down to avoiding pressing elevator buttons and using water coolers — but similar to those of other leagues that returned to play.

In a 56-game regular season crunched into 116 days, losing players to positive tests or COVID-19 exposure will carry a larger impact. The league introduced a five-man taxi squad, much like Major League Baseball did, to help compensate. But you can’t just replace key players with other bodies.

“Because of the condensed schedule and the games right on top of each other, you can’t afford to miss a group of guys,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

Even though teams will go on the road — games are now grouped mostly into two-game series to cut down on travel — they still will be mostly in isolation.

League rules prohibit teams from having close contact with the general public. While not mentioned specifically, that means no fan interaction or autographs. In road cities, they are restricted to the arena, practice facility and team hotel. Eating in restaurants and taking public transportation are no-nos.

Even at home, players, coaches and staff are told to avoid public interaction, down to in-home dining with any people outside their household.

“This is stuff, it’s somewhat in your control, and staying indoors and following the protocols puts you in the best position to succeed and make sure you’re on the ice all the time,” Cooper said. “Is it going to 100 percent prevent guys from not getting (the virus)? Who knows? We don’t know that yet.

“Other sports have proven that the odds are players get it but not in a situation where it (has) shut teams down. I think it’s only a natural progression as we move forward and the vaccine comes out to kind of let your guard down. But we have to make sure that we don’t, especially these next few months.”

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Even before the season began, teams like the Stars, Blue Jackets and Penguins were forced to cancel practices, train with a good chunk of their roster missing or shut down facilities because of positive tests or as a precaution for potential exposure to the virus. The Stars were hit the worst; with six positive player tests within their organization, their season won’t start before Jan. 19.

Defenseman Ryan McDonagh said it is the players’ responsibility to follow protocols. If players have to go into quarantine, they could be isolated up to 14 days. Teams are required to book two hotel rooms on the road in case a member of the travel party has to remain behind to quarantine.

“I think that’s been the message from management, talking to players in our group, that if you get COVID(-19) or you’re on the exposure list even, you know you could potentially be missing four to eight games and that’s a huge chunk of a short season,” McDonagh said.

“So I think our group’s kind of taken that to heart because we know the opportunity that we have this year, and the limited opportunities with the short season, to set yourself up to get to the playoffs. Every game is so crucial, and so I think we’re really going to try and buy in and put our focus on keeping as many players healthy and playing as best we can on the ice.”

Tier 1 personnel — which include coaches, players and staff — will be tested daily for the first four weeks of the season. Testing could be reduced to every 48 hours after that depending on how well it works. Unlike in the bubble, when players who missed time were labeled as “unfit to play,” those who test positive will be placed on a COVID-19 list.

Each team will have a compliance officer to monitor and enforce protocols, an infectious disease consultant, a facility compliance officer and a contact tracing officer. One difference: Close contacts won’t be quarantined unless they test positive or show symptoms

“Even coming to the rink is going to be different — more testing, more protocols, more masks, more social distancing,” Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois said. “But that’s the way of the world right now. So if we compare our protocols and our way of operating right now to what we’re used to, it’s significantly different and has the potential to be frustrating and aggravating.

“But it’s still a lot better than people that are completely isolated, which a lot of people in North America right now are. They can’t go to work, can’t do what it is that they’re passionate about, because they’re confined to their homes. We at least get to go out there, compete, play hockey, keep working on improving and chase another championship.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieintheYard.