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NHL games are put on hold until after Christmas due to COVID-19 risks

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The National Hockey League is shutting down for the time being. Because of the spread of the omicron variant, there won't be any games until at least Monday. Now, some of the teams simply don't have enough healthy players to take the ice, and the league is reportedly expected to withdraw from the Beijing Winter Olympics early next year. Greg Wyshynski covers the NHL for espn.com. Greg, what factors led to this decision?

GREG WYSHYNSKI: Well, first, they wanted to allow teams to get their players back from the COVID protocols, which can keep symptomatic players in isolation for 10 days at a minimum. We had all these teams impacted by the protocols, many games postponed. Fans were watching players they had never heard of wearing their team's jerseys and paying good money to see them. But the league also wanted to see if the changes it recently made to its COVID protocols made a difference - going back to daily testing, wearing masks at all times inside club facilities and during travel, going back to virtual meetings - essentially the same protocols they had during last season's 56-game season, which was played during the pandemic. So they're going to continue these protocols until January 7, then they'll re-evaluate them. Keep this in mind, too - I think a lot of people don't know this - in the NHL, when players test positive, they then have a 90-day testing holiday following their confirmed positive diagnosis. So that's also going to be a factor, too, going forward with these guys getting back in the lineup.

MARTINEZ: And what are you learning, Greg, about the NHL's approach to the Beijing Winter Olympics in February?

WYSHYNSKI: Oh, well, unfortunately for the players, it's not good. You know, after opting out of the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, the NHL and their players collectively bargained to have them play in the 2022 and 2026 Winter Games. But the NHL reserved the right to pull out of the Beijing Games if there was a material change to its schedule due to COVID postponements. The league has now postponed over 50 games, which was enough to say that the schedule had materially changed and that it needed the three-week Olympic break to start rescheduling games.

Now, this might actually come as a relief for some of the players, to be honest. They were concerned about the COVID protocols in Beijing, some of which could have kept them in quarantine for three to five weeks if they had tested positive with symptoms over there. And if they caught COVID while playing in the Beijing Olympics, any time that they missed in the National Hockey League, be it practices or games, they would not have been paid for that time missed. So in some respects, for some players, the NHL might have actually let them off the hook by making the decision itself.

MARTINEZ: Now, players have been looking for the NHL's COVID protocol to change. What are they asking for?

WYSHYNSKI: Well, the NHL players I've spoken to think that there's too much testing. They think that they should follow the lead of other leagues and stop testing asymptomatic players as often. They look over towards the NFL's new protocols, which in fact are going in the opposite direction of the NHL. They ended weekly testing for asymptomatic vaccinated players in favor of strategic and targeted testing, and they're attempting to determine when players can return to the lineup by measuring how contagious they are rather than whether they're still testing positive for COVID. So the NHL players I've spoken to look at those protocols, they say, OK, this is probably what we should be doing in order to get our guys back into the lineup faster.

But the real issue is - and the epidemiologists I've spoken to have all said this - is the NHL is at the mercy of the municipalities, the local governments, the national governments. And when you have as many teams in Canada as the NHL does, it's playing a different game than the rest of the sports leagues are because I don't think the Canadian government is going to be in favor of reducing testing anytime soon.

MARTINEZ: And that's why the NHL seemingly - you know, I thought I might be imagining this - seemingly is having more struggles with this than the NBA and the NFL and Major League Baseball.

WYSHYNSKI: Yeah. They test more and the players - it's one of the reasons why the players want to see testing less. But, you know, you talk to the epidemiologists and they believe that might be a little bit of a head-in-the-sand-type approach to this thing. But at the same time, the epidemiologists also say these are young, healthy, vaccinated athletes who simply aren't getting as severely sick as they were when the pandemic started. So you have to keep that in mind, too.

MARTINEZ: Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer at espn.com. Greg, thanks.

WYSHYNSKI: Anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.