Detroit Red Wings balancing COVID vigilance 'while also living;' Olympics are 'worrisome'

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BOSTON — The news broke as the Detroit Red Wings were going through their morning skate: Bruce Cassidy, head coach of evening opponent Boston Bruins, had been placed in pandemic protocol.

It’s become a regular occurrence in the NHL, as the virus sidelines people and postpones games. One of the Wings’ own, defenseman Danny DeKeyser, has been in COVID-19 protocol since last week, and the New York Islanders, scheduled to play at Detroit on Saturday, had two games postponed this week after losing multiple players to COVID-19 protocol. Like everyone everywhere, the Wings wish the virus would vanish; instead it’s a daily talking point, especially with the Winter Olympics two months away.

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Red Wings center Dylan Larkin, second from right, talks to defenseman Danny DeKeyser (65). DeKeyser has been in pandemic protocol since before Thanksgiving, and Larkin missed one period after a false positive.
Red Wings center Dylan Larkin, second from right, talks to defenseman Danny DeKeyser (65). DeKeyser has been in pandemic protocol since before Thanksgiving, and Larkin missed one period after a false positive.

“It’s something that we had hoped we wouldn’t have to be in these spots as a league,” Wings coach Jeff Blashill said Tuesday at TD Garden. “As a league, we had hoped there wouldn’t be games canceled, but that’s what has happened. Numerous people have been in protocol. Some teams have had significant impacts.

“We have to balance as a group staying as vigilant as possible while also living. We’ll keep making those decisions as we move forward, how to best approach it. It does seem like a virus that can hit people and groups at any time, and I think it’s something that even when you take great precaution, you can get struck with it, whether it be individually or as a group.”

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One week into last season, the Wings lost five players to COVID-19 for 10 days. This season, DeKeyser has not been available since Thanksgiving Eve, and Larkin missed the third period of the Nov. 16 game at Dallas because of what turned out to be a false positive. Larkin described going through the experience as a mixture of disbelief, then relief. Vaccinated players are tested every three days, while unvaccinated players — of whom Wings forward Tyler Bertuzzi is the only one in the NHL — are tested daily.

The NHL succeeded staging a 56-game season in 2020-21, held largely without fans and with players confined to their hotels during road trips. Those restrictions have lifted, but the virus’ hold has prompted discussions regarding increased vigilance.

“We’ve had those conversations,” Blashill said. “What’s the best way to approach it? I know certain teams have done stuff like that, and they’ve actually been hit with COVID, harder. So it’s just really, really hard to predict.

“There’s so much of your life that if don’t shut down, or don’t end up living in a bubble, then what you have to do is take the best precaution you can. You have to mask when possible, you have to wash your hands. You have to do those things that have been proven that are effective in helping combat it.”

Detroit Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill watches action against Tampa Bay Lightning at Little Caesars Arena Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021.
Detroit Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill watches action against Tampa Bay Lightning at Little Caesars Arena Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021.

Blashill noted nobody wants to go through a repeat of last season — the Wings point to their 7-2-2 record at Little Caesars Arena as proof of just how much of a difference home fans make — but “if that’s what it takes, we’ll have to cross that bridge when we get to it. Maybe sooner than later — I don’t know that."

There have been internal conversations about booster shots, but as with getting the original shots, it’s up to each individual. The NHL and NHL Players Association do not have a vaccine mandate.

One thing everyone in the NHL is watching is January 10, which is the deadline for the league to pull out of allowing its players to participate in the Beijing Games. Defenseman Moritz Seider already has been named to Germany’s team, and while Lucas Raymond wasn’t on Sweden’s initial list of players, his performance has prompted that to be addressed. Larkin has represented the U.S. national team multiple times.

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“Everybody wants to go,” Blashill said. “Certainly the players do, I know the coaches involved do. All those people really want to go, and I think it would be great for the game. But obviously, we’ll see how it goes with cancellations of games. It’s a little bit worrisome when … the Islanders’ games get cancelled, after Ottawa got cancelled.

“One thing the NHL has done a really good job of is not making decisions until they’ve had to. When you’re dealing with unknowns as you’re dealing with what we’ve gone through with COVID, there’s a lot of unknowns, so try not to make the decision until you absolutely have to. That’s what they’re going to do do.”

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Red Wings stress vigilance as COVID-19 ravages NHL