NHL starts season with fewer than five players unvaccinated. How league achieved 99% buy in.

·6 min read

For two seasons, the NHL endured everything from pauses to restarts to bubbles while navigating the coronavirus pandemic.

As the 2021-22 season approached and the league and players' association once again negotiated player safety protocols, all parties involved saw vaccines as the easiest way to play the most normal season possible, even without a mandate. Thanks to NHL support and union-backed educational efforts, more than 99% of the league's players have been vaccinated by Tuesday's opening night, with "probably less than five" unvaccinated players (of approximately 700 total) on opening day rosters, deputy commissioner Bill Daly said.

“It’s a pretty tremendous result, for sure,” Daly told USA TODAY Sports on Monday, the eve of games beginning.

Given the low number of unvaccinated individuals, Daly expects the number of fully vaccinated teams by the beginning of the season to reach "the high 20s, low 30s." (Coaches and staff are required to be vaccinated.) In the United States, 76.4% of those 12 or older have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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"Everybody wants to get back to normal and getting the vaccine is a good step toward making that happen," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly says.
"Everybody wants to get back to normal and getting the vaccine is a good step toward making that happen," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly says.

"I think everybody recognizes not only is it the right thing to do from a health and safety perspective, and lives could be saved, but it is also the right thing to do from a season-format perspective," Daly added. "It gives us the best chance not to have disruptions and execute a full 82-game season with 32 healthy teams. Everybody wants to get back to normal and getting the vaccine is a good step toward making that happen."

As shots became available for hockey-age players over the spring and summer, NHL Players' Association executive director Donald Fehr said awareness among them increased.

"You never get 100 percent in this world," Fehr told USA TODAY Sports, "but we're pretty close."

Last season's schedule was constricted to intra-division games in an effort to confine teams geographically. Travel returns to normal this year, even to Canada, which has imposed a mandatory 14-day quarantine for unvaccinated visitors, making players without a shot ineligible to play.

A team has the right to suspend and dock the pay of an unvaccinated player if he’s unable to play because of a local, state or federal government’s rules. Unvaccinated players have to quarantine while on the road and face greater mask-wearing and social-distancing requirements. They must get tested every day, compared with every three days for vaccinated players.

“We weren’t really trying to convince each other one way or the other,” Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty told reporters last month. “But then I think when the NHL released that statement that you lose pay and stuff like that, that kind of changed some guys’ minds.”

Fehr said the passage of time caused some players to realize their concerns regarding the vaccine's efficacy or potential side effects were unfounded. While the league and union ironed out this season's protocols, there was an uptick in jabs in arms for the previously unvaccinated.

"They understand the players and the NHL are subject to whatever public health rules are in effect in both the U.S. and Canada and any state or province or city in which we play," Fehr said. "They understand what that would mean."

Players rejoining their teammates for training camp last month helped close the gap to almost full vaccination across the league, Daly said. The players' association ramped up the education aspect for unvaccinated players, whether that was facilitating conversations with one of three outside doctors based in Canada or providing data. All of the clubs and their medical staffs were in lockstep.

“The ones that were unvaccinated started to become vaccinated very quickly," Daly said. "Part of that, no doubt, has to do with protocol, but part of it has to do with the education process that you get with coming back to the club, talking back to club personnel and even talking to union personnel.

“Once the players were reintroduced to the club environment, it certainly became easier for reluctant individuals to see the value proposition in getting vaccinated.”

Vaccination success isn't a reason for the NHL to no longer treat the pandemic as a threat. The league is aware of breakthrough positives, and the Seattle Kraken placed five players on the COVID-19 protocol list Monday. The Colorado Avalanche announced Tuesday that star Nathan MacKinnon tested positive, is asymptomatic and will miss at least the season opener.

Daly expects similar occurrences as long as variants spread. To Daly’s knowledge, though, most of the breakthrough positives are asymptomatic.

"Some are mildly symptomatic," he said. "That’s all a testament to having been vaccinated."

On Oct. 1, the WNBA announced 99% of its players were fully vaccinated. Other professional leagues, such as the NFL and NBA – despite ultimately securing high vaccination rates among players – fought public perception battles prior to their seasons when high-profile stars refused inoculations.

There has been little drama for the NHL. The Columbus Blue Jackets barred Zac Rinaldo, an unvaccinated forward, from training camp and won't let him play for their AHL club either.

New Jersey Devils goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood, who is unvaccinated, would have missed Friday night's preseason game, canceled anyway by a power outage, due to inconclusive COVID-19 tests.

"I know the (players' association) has got some great people to talk to as well, as (to) really what the shot is," Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald said recently on SportsNet's "The Jeff Marek Show." "If you have any questions I know they’d be able to answer it. But from us, there was no guilt. There was no begging. I just want to lay out all the protocols with him, and to be quite honest, make sure he knows we are going to hold his feet to the fire for every single protocol.

"At the end of the day, I want people to tell me when he got it. Not ‘he’s going to get it’ or ‘he’s thinking about getting it.’ Just tell me when he gets it.”

Tyler Bertuzzi of the Detroit Red Wings is another known player who is unvaccinated.

The Edmonton Oilers said earlier this month that unvaccinated Josh Archibald appeared to have contracted COVID-19 during the offseason and is out indefinitely with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle.

"People can make their own decisions," New York Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba said last month, "but the right one would be to get vaccinated."

Contributing: The Associated Press

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NHL schedule opens with 99% of players vaccinated. How it got here.