Panthers’ Stralman wonders if NHL’s return to play would be worth the risks

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As the NHL pushes for a return to play, it’s fair to ask: “Is it worth it?” Chances are, plenty of players are quietly wondering that. Credit to Panthers defenseman Anton Stralman for actually saying it, though.

Stralman provided refreshingly candid insight to The Athletic’s Joe Smith (sub required) on Monday. It’s worth getting into Stralman’s specific risks, but also his wider views on the situation.

If you’re like me and you wonder about the risk-reward ratio of returning to play as COVID-19 uncertainty lingers, then you might risk injuring your neck nodding along with Stralman’s takes.

“I think you should be concerned,” Stralman told Smith. “There are so many ways to look at this thing. I know everybody wants hockey back, but safety has to come first. And it’s a little bit worrisome, I can’t deny that. Even though most players are young and healthy, I’m sure there are players like me that have underlying health issues. I don’t know how my body will react if I get this virus.”

[Stralman’s Panthers would face the Islanders in the Qualifying Round. More on the 24-team setup here.]

Stralman among NHL players at greater risk during a possible return

Stralman, 33, faces greater risks considering his lengthy battle with bronchiectasis, a lung disease where airways are damaged, preventing sufferers from clearing mucus from their lungs. Smith notes that Stralman just got off medication for bronchiectasis last year; judging by this 2014 report from NHL.com’s Dan Rosen, Stralman needed pretty heavy-duty medication:

Dr. Dimango had Stralman start a course of treatment tailored for people with cystic fibrosis. It featured a dosage of antibiotics three times per week. Stralman doesn’t have cystic fibrosis, but the treatment has staved off his infections.

It indeed seems reasonable if Stralman worries about how his “body will react” if he contracted COVID-19. The Canadian Lung Association notes that, while people with lung diseases aren’t more likely to contract the virus, they are more likely to suffer from a more serious case if they do contract it.

Would Stralman be forced to return if he doesn’t feel safe? Gary Bettman allowed some wiggle room for players with underlying risks, but also said he expected able-bodied players to return to action. In a hockey culture where you’re expected to play through pain, would Stralman be comfortable sitting things out for what could be an extended period of time?

So, yeah, it’s understandable that Stralman is worried. And he’s almost certainly not alone, even if others are silent (or have even bigger issues on their minds).

Voicing concerns about wider risks

To be clear, Stralman didn’t merely express his personal concerns to Smith in an interview very much worth reading. Stralman voiced plenty of big-picture worries about how others will be involved.

Stralman wonders about not just players involved, but workers in buildings being exposed to extra risks. Would running two “hub cities” with 24 teams require medical resources being diverted from those who need it the most? The NHL’s said all the right things about avoiding that, yet it’s still fair to wonder if it might happen.

“I think the main thing is safety,” Stralman said. “And I don’t think we should be obliged to be prioritized over people that actually need it way more than we do. There are so many people in this world right now that are going through some really tough times. I think all hockey players and owners should consider themselves fairly lucky to be where they’re at.”

In hoping for a return to play, there’s been a focus on if the NHL can pull off. And, to be fair, even those questions aren’t easy to answer. Yet, above all else, should the NHL return, at least in the near future?

That’s a tough call, so it’s refreshing that Stralman is willing to ask such questions.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.