BRANDON — The Lightning knew Saturday’s game in Denver might be postponed because of a coronavirus outbreak affecting the Avalanche, but they didn’t receive official word until they were boarding their charter flight Friday.
The postponement left the Lightning with what coach Jon Cooper called an unanticipated but needed day off Saturday before a quick practice Sunday at the Ice Sports Forum before a flight to Las Vegas for Tuesday’s scheduled game against the Golden Knights.
After emerging from the 2020 playoff bubble and last season’s abbreviated and protocol-filled campaign with Stanley Cup championships, the Lightning are used to adapting. Though they haven’t been directly affected by the wave of virus cases that have infiltrated many locker rooms this season and forced game postponements and other teams to shut down for periods, the uncertainty is unsettling for them.
“The most frustrating part of everything is just games getting canceled,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “It brings back hard memories of when the whole season went on pause (in 2019-20) and you didn’t know when you were going to play again, and there were a lot of ifs and stuff. … But at the end of the day, it’s out of our control of who’s making the decisions right now, and like everyone here, we’re just trying to stay ready and be as prepared as we can for whatever our next game is.”
The Lightning on Sunday were scheduled to have two more games before the holiday break, which begins Friday. After facing the Golden Knights, they were to visit the Coyotes on Thursday.
As of Sunday, the Lightning and Golden Knights were among just 11 of the league’s 32 teams that did not have a player in the COVID-19 protocol. Tampa Bay had not had an announced case this season. Players have talked about doing everything they can to stay safe, everybody is vaccinated, and booster shots have been made available through the team.
All but one NHL player — Detroit’s Tyler Bertuzzi — is vaccinated, and most of the players who have landed in the protocol have been asymptomatic or had flulike symptoms.
Still, the Lightning have been fortunate. They played in Ottawa and hosted the Islanders just before those teams had outbreaks, though that was before cases began increasing. On Sunday, the Red Wings, Canadiens and Maple Leafs joined the list of teams shutting down because of virus issues until at least the end of the holiday break next Monday, bringing the total to eight.
“It is perplexing,” Cooper said.
A revised protocol announced Saturday is a retreat to last season’s preventative measures. It includes a return to daily testing; mandatory mask wearing in club facilities and while traveling; limitations to eating on the road; and virtual team meetings. It is strongly recommended that players and staff wear masks in indoor public spaces and reduce their overall interaction with the public.
“The issue is the protocols,” Cooper said. “We’ve actually taken two steps back, so this is the part that’s unfortunate. So as a team, it’s just another thing you have to deal with. But as I told our guys, we have it probably better than most in the state we live in. So you just have to be vigilant in what you’re doing and understanding hopefully that this is the last time that we have to kind of go through this.
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“I’m not a scientist or an epidemiologist. … Like they’ve said, vaccines and boosters don’t prevent you from getting the virus, but they probably allow you to play if you have the virus. So I think that’s what we have to weigh at some point. When do we say, ‘Hey, listen, nobody’s ultimately going to get really sick and we are protected. We should be able to play.’ But that’s not a decision for me.”
The league said Sunday that because nearly the entire league is vaccinated and “there have been a low number of positive cases that have resulted in concerning symptoms or serious illness,” decisions on shutting down teams will be made case by case. But games that involve cross-border travel were postponed starting today through the holiday break, and a decision on whether players will participate in the Olympics in February was expected to be made in the coming days.
McDonagh said he hoped the NHL would consider going the way of the NFL, which Sunday began testing only unvaccinated players and those with possible virus symptoms under that league’s revised protocols.
“It just seems, in my opinion, a little bit more logical as far as how to go about the next step of living with this and moving on with this in our life going forward,” McDonagh said. “So it does make a lot of sense to me. And we’ll see eventually if that happens. Ultimately, in the next couple of weeks here, we’ll see data from all sides and see how it plays out.”
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How to get vaccinated
The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and up and booster shots for eligible recipients are being administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow appointments to be booked online. Here’s how to find a site near you:
Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your zip code.
More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.
Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.
Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.
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