The upswing in COVID-cases that is causing havoc in the National Hockey League has finally caught up with the Maple Leafs.
The club announced Friday afternoon that its captain John Tavares and forward Alexander Kerfoot have been placed in the league’s COVID-19 protocol program.
The team is currently on a road trip in Western Canada. The players and members of the travelling staff were tested in Vancouver on Thursday and it wasn’t until Friday morning that results were received. The entire group was to undergo another round of tests later in the day.
A practice session planned for Friday in Vancouver was cancelled as a precautionary measure. Toronto was supposed to play in Calgary on Thursday, but that game was cancelled.
With the exception of Auston Matthews, who had COVID-19 in the summer before the start of the 2020-21 season, Toronto has managed not to have an outbreak until now.
Across the league, more than 50 players are sidelined and as of Friday 20 games had been postponed.
On Friday morning the NHL announced that Saturday’s encounter at the Bell Centre between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins was cancelled and would have to be rescheduled. The Canadiens had played at home on Thursday against the Philadelphia Flyers without a crowd.
Later Friday, the Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers had games scuttled until after the Christmas break, and the Calgary Flames had three additional games postponed through Dec. 23.
The postponements were agreed to after consultations between medical officials for the league, the clubs and NHL Players’ Association.
The sharp rise in COVID-19 cases is partly owing to the new COVID-19 variant called Omicron. At this point, a number teams have multiple players infected. The virus has especially decimated Calgary, which has 20 players and 10 coaches and staff members on the protocol list. The Flames had already four games cancelled this week, including a Thursday contest against the Maple Leafs.
The Edmonton Oilers announced Friday that veteran forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has also tested positive, joining teammate Ryan McLeod and head coach Dave Tippett in COVID-19 quarantine. Training facilities in Calgary, Colorado and Florida are closed indefinitely.
At 20-8-2, Toronto is off to its best start in many years. Its next game is scheduled for Saturday evening in Vancouver. The Canucks also have four players in the COVID-19 protocol at this time. The Maple Leafs’ road trip will end on Sunday in Seattle against the first-year Kraken.
Tavares is Toronto’s second-leading scorer with 32 points in 29 games. Kerfoot has four goals and 16 assists in 30 games. Matthews leads the club in both goals (20) and points (33).
The NHL said Friday that Calgary, Colorado and Florida have been shut down until after the league’s holiday break, “due to concern with the number of positive cases within the last two days as well as concern for continued COVID spread in the coming days.”
A total of 20 games have been postponed amid a sharp rise in players entering the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol in recent weeks, including a massive jump since Monday as the fast-moving Omicron variant propels the pandemic’s latest wave.
The league announced it was postponing two more Flames games – Dec. 21 versus Anaheim and Dec. 23 game versus Seattle – bringing Calgary’s number to six.
The NHL said it’s in the process of reviewing and revising all three teams’ schedules.
The Avalanche and Panthers also have a host of players in protocol.
The Avalanche’s postponed games include Saturday versus Tampa Bay, Monday at Detroit, Wednesday at Buffalo and Thursday at Boston.
The Panthers’ postponed games are Saturday at Minnesota, Tuesday at Chicago, and Thursday versus Nashville.
Meanwhile, fans attending sports events in Ontario, where capacity at large venues (more than 1,000 people) are being capped at 50 per cent because of rising COVID-19 numbers, will not be able to eat or drink in their seats.
On Friday, the province announced new Omicron-related restrictions which include a prohibition on food and drink consumption at sports arenas, cinemas and other large venues.
The new rules come into effect first thing Sunday morning.
The Canucks will also soon be playing in front of a half-empty Rogers Arena. On Friday, the B.C. government announced a string of new restrictions on events and gatherings, including limiting venues that hold more than 1,000 people to 50 per cent capacity.
B.C.’s restrictions will start Monday and last until Jan. 31.
The American Hockey League also announced three upcoming games for the Toronto Marlies have been postponed, while a COVID-19 issue with the Belleville Senators means two games – Friday in Syracuse against the Crunch and at home Saturday against the Providence Bruins – have been shelved.