TORONTO — Life is starting to shift back to normal in the National Hockey League — just not for players in Canada.
The NHL eased some of its COVID-19 health and safety protocols over the weekend for clubs that have been fully vaccinated. But because of the decidedly slower rollout to get shots in arms north of the border, Canadian franchises won’t be enjoying the same freedoms as some of their U.S.-based counterparts anytime soon.
“Very jealous,” said Winnipeg Jets winger Andrew Copp, who is from Michigan. “I see my family and my friends living a normal life right now. Very jealous of that. Happy for the guys in the states that are playing hockey to be able to live their lives as much as possible.”
Edmonton Oilers defenseman Tyson Barrie said the league’s move is a good sign, even though teams in Canada are still bound by the same directives they’ve been adhering to since training camp — daily testing, physical distancing and limited contact with teammates outside the rink — that were beefed up further amid a rash of coronavirus outbreaks in February.
“There’s a lot of teams down there that are vaccinated,” Barrie said. “We’ve been in these protocols for a long time, so if it’s safe and everyone’s able to do it, then absolutely it’s an exciting time to be able to get back out there and support some businesses and try to get this thing back on track.”
The relaxing of NHL protocols announced Saturday takes effect once 85% or more of a team’s traveling party has been fully vaccinated. The changes include loosened restrictions on indoor and outdoor dining, testing frequency, mask wearing and quarantine requirements.
All members of the Toronto Maple Leafs were eligible to be vaccinated starting Sunday because the team’s practice facility is located in one of Ontario’s designated COVID-19 hot spots. The Montreal Canadiens, meanwhile, are expected to begin getting their shots Thursday after Quebec lowered age restrictions.
“There’s more and more shots readily available,” Toronto’s Jason Spezza said. “It shows signs of us healing as a community and getting closer to a return to normalcy.”
Only teams that have had a second dose will be deemed fully vaccinated in the eyes of the NHL, so players in Canada are still a long way from meeting for meals at restaurants or hanging out inside each other’s homes.
Despite the protocols remaining the same in the Canadian-based North Division — a one-time-only circuit created because of pandemic-related border restrictions — Montreal winger Paul Byron doesn’t take issue with U.S. teams having more freedoms with the Stanley Cup playoffs looming.
“The government rules are different,” said Byron, the Canadiens’ NHL Players’ Association representative. “Life is just different for us. I don’t think it’s an unfair advantage or anything like that. You’ve got to make the most of it.”
Under the NHL’s new regulations, those fully vaccinated can dine outdoors or inside, visit a teammate or coach’s hotel room, play golf and have other social gatherings without masking or distancing requirements. Team staff also won’t have to quarantine for potential exposure or be subject to testing on off days.
Just over one-third of Americans have been fully vaccinated compared to about 3% in Canada.
“It’s the way the world is right now,” Oilers bench boss Dave Tippett said. “A lot of parts of the U.S. are wide open, and Canada is still closed down. You just have to deal with where you’re at.”
The NHL was the last of the major four North American pro sports leagues to announce relaxed virus protocols for teams based on individual vaccination levels.