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NHL chooses silence over leadership on COVID-19

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How can we judge their performance if they won’t tell us the score?

World Cup of Hockey - Hockey Development Town Hall Photo by Graig Abel/World Cup of Hockey via Getty Images

When it comes to COVID-19 and Return to Play, the NHL wants all of us kept down on the farm — the mushroom farm.

The Mushroom Farm

The mushroom farm is where you’re kept in the dark and fed shit. That works great for mushrooms, but not so much for matters of public interest. And there is a public interest and a public right to know a lot of things the NHL is keeping silent on regarding the Coronavirus pandemic and their plans on how to cope with it.

We, as fans, media, and people who might want to fork over our money for the NHL’s product, have a right to make an informed decision about their current Return to Play plans and schedule. Their implementation of the Phase 2 voluntary training, and the risk to all the people returning to work because of this plan in all the cities it takes place in. And we don’t have the information to make that decision.

Here’s some questions none of us have answers to:

On March 16, the NHL gave players permission to return home to wherever home is. Phase 2 began on June 8, and the 11 positive tests announced by the NHL Friday night at a quarter to eight date from June 8 to Friday, June 19. How many NHL players, AHL players, team personnel or staff have tested positive between March 16 and June 8?

How many team personnel or staff members have tested positive since then?

How many of the player positive tests were on their first test before training began? How many came after an initial negative test?

Has there been spread of the disease within NHL team facilities or not?

Have players been following the Phase 2 protocols in all locations? (Remember Kasperi Kapanen and Cody Ceci on a boat?)

Have teems been following the Phase 2 protocols in all locations?

Did the NHL expect positive test? And if so, why didn’t they tell the players and the rest of us what to expect?

Will the NHL order new rules for teams in locations like Florida, Arizona and Texas where the virus spread in the community now is very different (in the wrong direction) to where it was when the protocol was voted on? If not, why not?

Are the tests being processed in all locations as fast as they need to be? If teams with very few players taking part will suddenly have 20 or 30 players on site, can they cope with that?

What is the condition that would cause the NHL to pause Phase 2 at all locations?

What is the NHL’s process for securing the health and well being of players on the seven teams not taking part in Return to Play?

What can individual teams actually do to ensure their players and staff stay safe when the team facility is not operating?

Nature abhors a vacuum

By keeping us all in the dark on all of this, the NHL has tried to induce a state of blissful ignorance in all of us. Ignorance isn’t just bliss, it helps the blame train roll down the tracks. We can happily assume that every team has done nothing, and doesn’t care, and only wants money and HOW DARE YOU. People are leaping to so many wild conclusions off of one short little release of non-information that it’s like an internet Swan Lake.

I don’t have any sympathy for the NHL here, they lit the fuse on this PR bomb themselves.

To begin with that first question up there about how many positive tests have occurred during the hiatus, we need to remember another truism: Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.

But because we have no idea if that number is 0 or some number much larger than 11, we’re left to fill the information vacuum with assumptions. And if you assume that number is zero, if you believe that cut loose from all team control, players are safe, you can easily leap to the conclusion that Phase 2 is the cause of those 11 infections. Shutting it down becomes a reasonable proposal, and the NHL’s unwillingness to even explain why they aren’t considering it seems like cavalier disregard for health.

Maybe it is. Or maybe they’ve picked a path between leaving the players to their own devices and trying to exercise total team control over them that is the least risky option.

If you present the problem as one of positive tests, shutting it all down is absolutely the solution. Close those rinks, send the players home, stop testing them, and you won’t have any more positive tests. It won’t matter what the NHL’s plan to reveal results is, because there won’t be any, and everyone can relax and be blissful.

What we all want is for no one else ever to get this virus. We can’t have that, so we look at the NHL and decide we want the NHL to make sure no hockey player gets this virus. And the truth the NHL was too afraid to tell us off the top is that they can’t provide that. They can’t give us that with or without a Return to Play. They should have stepped up and been honest about that weeks ago because we should have expected some initial positive tests. They should have been direct with the players, too.

I’m frustrated with the NHL because they had an opportunity here to be the kind of leader they always decline to be. They could be more open about their protocols and the results. They could tell us all exactly how these positive tests are coming about, so when other industries are looking to reopen they can learn from it. They could publicize the danger in places that are failing to control the virus and exert some pressure on those governments to pull their finger out and deal with it.

Other businesses in those states are taking proactive and independent actions to close during this surge in infections. The NHL can do that too. Instead they’ve chosen this:

The NHL can prove to us all that they can run this Return to Play in a way that is actually at a lower risk than not doing it at all. But I can’t have confidence that they took the right path between cutting the players loose to their own fates and trying to corral them together and test them repeatedly. Leaving us all to judge them on their track record wasn’t really a smart move. But then, it was ever thus with an organization that sees itself very differently from how many of us see them.

This virus and all the horrible consequences of it are of society’s problem. That’s us. And the NHL. And it’s on all of us to solve it. If there’s an outbreak in Florida or Arizona, it’s a failure of us all. The NHL can decide to take a leadership role, even if that’s politically problematic in this brave new world of virus prevention as identity politics. Or they can stick to late Friday evening news dumps and silence.

There’s a hockey cliché about earning your place on the top line or the leadership group on a team. There’s a tonne of them about having to earn respect. Maybe the NHL should try watching some damn hockey, they might learn something from it.