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Merry Xmas NHL

For all the professional hockey players who lamented the fact that they’d have to work through the holiday, there’s good news. From today until Sunday, all NHL team facilities are shut down, and all games are cancelled until the 27th. Which means they can enjoy Christmas without having to worry about a crosscheck to the ribcage. The bad news is why they’re doing it, which is not some new work-life balance policy. It’s because around 15% of the League is in Covid protocols, which makes it nearly impossible to schedule games without holding open tryouts. And beyond that, it’s become abundantly clear that they’re not sure how they can keep this new Omicron variant from spreading like, well, the Omicron variant. So the hope is that by taking a pause, they can stop the spread, hopefully come up with their better protocols, and basically pray for the best. That, of course, is the playbook for pretty much everyone these days.

They may be the only American pro league taking a full sabbatical, but there’s plenty of sports teams that are calling in sick. College basketball teams aren’t sure who, of even if they’re going to play up until tipoff. So far, three Big-East teams have forfeited games because they don’t have enough eligible players. Seton Hall is 1-1 in conference play and haven’t taken to the court yet. The NFL postponed three games for Covid, and at one point the LA Rams had 29 players out. The NBA has postponed a series of games, and teams like the Brooklyn Nets will be lucky to find a starting five. So even though the NHL may sound more drastic, the reality is that they’re probably the only ones who are truly facing the music.

If this sounds familiar, well, that’s because it’s December 2021. Everything sounds familiar now. Life is a flat circle, positive test results, masks, quarantine, Zoom, rinse, repeat. Perhaps more daunting for professional and elite amateur sports now is that we’ve moved past the restrictive phase of the pandemic, where either teams were playing in bubbles or there weren’t as many fans. Now we’re in the please get vaccinated and, depending what state you’re in, show a vax card at the door phase. And we all thought that was going to be fine, because, well, the alternative does not sound good. That is until a whole bunch of players, who for the overwhelming large part are vaccinated, starting testing positive like it was a drug test at Phish concert.

There will be a lot of Monday morning quarterbacks here. Actually, there are likely to be a lot of Monday quarterbacks because they keep rescheduling Sunday games. But you will hear an incredibly wide range of fairly dogmatic opinions of what sport should do. Those range from calls to cancel everything to open up the floodgates and let them play. Neither are particularly realistic, and both reflect a position of risk-tolerance and political identity as much as they do good medical or economic policy. And to be honest, these are similar quandaries a lot of us are dealing with at a much more personal level – including myself. Like, should I let my 14-year-old play basketball. Should my 11-year-old play futsal or take indoor tennis lessons. For the record, both are vaccinated, but also clearly vulnerable. And yet pulling them out of sports some 20 months into this nightmare is a decision I’m just not prepared to make – having already seen the ill effects of kids with nothing to look forward to.

Of course, the question of pro and college sports is a bit different. And as much as everyone love to play weekend epidemiologist, I have absolutely no idea what this Omicron means – or even how to pronounce it – and whether it’s simply inevitable that everyone’s going to get this eventually, a theory I’m sadly leaning towards. I do believe that the current trajectory is largely unsustainable, either because you’ll have no eligible players or leagues will start to hemorrhage cash – something that doesn’t work well in the long-term. I also believe that as the American psyche starts to crack, sport does provide one of the few reprieves from the reality of the moment. So I understand its importance beyond its economics – and that goes for youth sport as well.

What I’m trying to say, which is really the only thing I think we can say, is that when it comes to sports and Covid 20 months in – anyone who’s sure of anything is a fool. That, and for once, NHL athletes will have an oddly Merry Christmas.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.