The Columbus Blue Jackets enter the NHL’s holiday break as one of nearly one-third of the league’s teams who had games cancelled, facilities closed, and the team shut down until at least December 26, 2021. In addition to missing the game against the Calgary Flames, the Blue Jackets missed two games against the Buffalo Sabres and are expected to miss Monday’s tilt with the Toronto Maple Leafs with questions about border crossings.
As the Blue Jackets go to break with questions about getting back to play, where does the league and the team stand?
First, as many of you are aware, the league is shut down - the final game on Tuesday night, Tampa Bay and Vegas, was played and then teams were sent on Christmas break early. With COVID cases rising, games being postponed, and governments in Canadian provinces imposing strict limits on fan attendance levels, the NHL leadership felt it best to pause to gain a better lay of the land with where the league stood among rising Omicron cases. The NHL is currently the only professional league on a full pause, but others (including the NFL and NBA) have seen games postponed as well.
Currently, the plan is for the league to resume games next week, but cross-border travel remains a question. The Blue Jackets are currently scheduled to host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday night, but that game is certainly in question.
Fans and the league itself seem to be uncertain when a return to play will occur, but one thing is certain - when teams return, they will do so with enhanced protocols in place.
The enhanced NHL protocols for COVID testing. pic.twitter.com/f6TYzKNhW0— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) December 18, 2021
These are the same protocols teams used last year when traveling. As noted, these are only in place right now until January 7th, but that can change at any moment.
On Wednesday, the NHL and NHLPA also announced that, due to the ongoing COVID situation, players will not be going to the Olympics in China. This is a crushing blow to fans and players who hoped to see a true best on best tournament, but given local restrictions in China and increasing positive test results, going to the Olympics has been seen as a remote possibility for several weeks.
No NHL at Olympics: Bettman says Feb. 6-22 window will be used for games. pic.twitter.com/ENul995e9U— Matt Porter (@mattyports) December 22, 2021
The league also announced, as laid out in the statement above, that the NHL will be utilizing that Olympic break to make up postponed games (including games that may be postponed in the future). Some buildings have concerts and events booked, so how exactly that looks remains to be seen, but players will be expected to play during their Olympic break.
So, what does this mean for the Columbus Blue Jackets and hockey fans here in the city?
First and foremost, it means we should expect a scattershot schedule the rest of the way as the league figures out the best way to get each team to 82 games played. It is not known what contingencies are being looked at - extending the season, an unbalanced schedule, or something else. But after two seasons of lost revenue, the league is going to desperately work to make sure each team gets to 82 games as collects as much hockey related revenue as possible.
Second, expect enhanced mask enforcement in Nationwide Arena. While in-arena limits are subject to local government restrictions (and Columbus, to this point, has not shown a willingness to limit indoor capacities), teams themselves can enforce mask policies. Nationwide Arena has been requiring masks, but enforcement has been minimal. To keep fans and players safe during the Omicron surge, expect that to change.
This will likely be a frustrating season down the stretch for fans, with games and plans being moved and postponed at the last minute. It’s going to be a struggle, but we can all get through it together. The best way to keep the league going, and to keep fans and players alike safe, is to get vaccinated and get booster shots. That will ensure the best level of protection against COVID.