With this week’s opening of training camps across the NHL and the implementation of impressively stringent COVID-19 protocols for players opting not to be vaccinated, there was bound to be some eye-opening incidents.
Sure, NHL organizations like the Boston Bruins, Minnesota Wild and the New York Islanders were able to get everybody 100 percent fully vaccinated without much more then a general discussion with the team medical staff. But there were others like the Columbus Blue Jackets forced to deliver their “zero tolerance” message by sending cheap shot artist Zac Rinaldo to the minors upon refusal to get vaccinated ahead of training camp.
Some players that were holding out had a change of heart after seeing some of the fallout, and others like Edmonton Oilers defenseman Duncan Keith are going to get a late Oct. 1 start to training camp after finally taking the vaccine and serving out a quarantine period.
"We've had some player reluctance on vaccination,” admitted NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, who estimated that less than 15 players across a 700-plus player league will end up foregoing the COVID-19 vaccine to start the season. "Our latest information is that reluctance is receding. Some players who were holdouts are going to go forward and get vaccinated, so hopefully at some point in the season we'll have 100 percent fully vaccinated."
“A 98-99 percent vaccination rate League-wide is tremendous. Nobody who deals with the players on a regular basis under protocols can be unvaccinated, so those people have to be vaccinated as well.
"It creates a safer environment for everybody. It gives us the best chance to get back to normal and to grow the sport and to protect everybody's health and safety in doing that. I give the players and the Players' Association tremendous credit in encouraging players, educating players, making sure they're aware of the benefits of being fully vaccinated and the importance of being fully vaccinated to move the sport forward."
That leaves us, unfortunately, with a bit of a different situation with the Detroit Red Wings that deserves all manner of scrutiny.
In most cases, players holding out and refusing the vaccine are borderline NHL roster guys like Rinaldo with Columbus or Edmonton Oilers winger Josh Archibald. It’s just as easy to ship them off to the minors and tell them they are not welcome at NHL training camp unless they opt to put the team’s well-being in front of their “personal choice” about the COVID-19 vaccine.
But in Detroit, top-6 winger Tyler Bertuzzi is refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine and has been one of the team’s best players with back-to-back 20-goal seasons before a back injury limited him to just nine games with the Red Wings last season. Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman has opted to allow Bertuzzi to be a full participant in training camp while adhering to a strict set of NHL guidelines and protocols for unvaccinated players, which includes the proviso that Bertuzzi will not be permitted to cross the Canadian border and play Detroit’s nine NHL games in Canada this season.
If the Red Wings were to somehow make the playoffs and face a Canadian team, an unvaccinated Bertuzzi would be ineligible to play in those games.
In a sport where unselfish play is preached at even the lowest levels of hockey and no one player is ever above the team concept, Bertuzzi is absolutely hurting the Red Wings over his “personal choice.” And it feels like Yzerman is enabling this behavior by not adopting a harder stance against a player clearly going against the NHL grain.
“Personal choice. Freedom of choice. And life choice,” said Bertuzzi, of his decision.
It should be said that Bertuzzi is considered a great teammate by his Red Wings peers, and that factor will buy him some goodwill even as his personal choice makes things difficult for a rebuilding Detroit team that needs all the help they can get.
“I’d start first by saying Tyler is a guy I love as a person, love as a player. I’m a big fan of Tyler,” said Detroit Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill. “I think he’s a great teammate. The NHL allowed our players to make the decision on this. Obviously, we’d love to have everybody vaccinated, because then you don’t lose anybody at any point.
“How will I handle it? Other guys will get opportunity when he can’t play. That’s just the reality of it. There’s not a lot more to the whole story than that.”
Yzerman was quick to say that he wasn’t in a position to force anybody to take the COVID-19 vaccine, but that feels a bit like the former Red Wings great is passing the buck. Yzerman could have told Bertuzzi to head to AHL camp and ride the buses for a bit while mulling his “personal choice” as other NHL organizations did with their holdout players.
The bottom line with all of this is that the Red Wings as an organization, and certainly the NHL as a business, can’t afford more shutdowns due to COVID-19, and this entire situation is much bigger than one Red Wings player’s “personal choice.” It’s a public health and safety issue that’s been muddied with some kind of personal freedoms argument due to unfortunate misinformation and bad actors every step of the way during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Individuals like Bertuzzi are unfortunately caught in the middle rattling off tired excuses behind refusing the vaccine, and that’s too bad. But the time for coddling and enabling these folks has long since passed as the COVID virus mutates and continues to spread while the vast majority of society works to get back to normal.
Bertuzzi wants to frame his decision as “a personal choice”, but let’s call it for what it is. Bertuzzi is making a selfish choice putting his personal agenda ahead of his hockey team, and he’s hurting the Red Wings teammates he professes to love so much.
Any other way to describe it is candy-coating a situation in a sport where the vast majority can see through the bull pretty clearly.