The Caps playing in front of fans at Capital One Arena in 2019 Credit: Kelyn Soong

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On Nov. 25, 1905, a sophomore engineering student named Harold Moore woke up in his dorm room at Union College in New York. He ate a quick breakfast, had a meeting with his football coach, and then sent a telegram to his father. He would be playing halfback in that night’s big game against NYU, and he wanted his dad to travel from their home in Ogdensburg, New York to see him. He left the telegram office excitedly. 

Six hours later, Moore would die of a head injury he sustained on the field. He was 19 years old, and his dad was in the stands to watch.

At least 18 Americans died playing organized football in 1905 alone. Hosting the games became so dangerous that President Theodore Roosevelt intervened, calling the head coaches of the nation’s leading football powers to the White House and releasing a statement calling for a safe resolution to the crisis.

In the past 12 months, more than 470,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. A new and more contagious variant of the virus has just arrived in the U.S. And the NHL is hosting a traveling circus in 31 cities across North America, with some teams allowing fans into their arenas.

The NHL’s decision to have a season makes sense on paper. Professional hockey is a money-making machine for most markets. NHL games bring in entertainment dollars into cities, many of those buoying local restaurants and businesses as life-giving spillover. That’s to say nothing of the team and arena employees, the travel and hospitality staff, the reporters and media production teams, the caterers and cooks and equipment manufacturers whose jobs depend on the NHL playing these games in a very real way.

It would also be disingenuous to ignore the meaningful positive impact that sports have on our collective mental health as a society. They are a source of joy, release, escape, and catharsis for millions of Americans at a time when life has never felt more small, cramped, and dark.

“Sports are providing a service right now. It’s uplifting, and what sports have provided has helped a lot of people in this country get through this terrible time,” Grant Paulsen, host of Grant and Danny on 106.7 The Fan, tells City Paper. “It gives them joy, it gives them an element of normalcy that they’re lacking. It’s healthy for America to have that therapeutic release.”

To actually execute on that promise, to deliver the balm of making sports happen in a world with COVID, requires the difficult task of risk management, not the impossible one of risk elimination.

But the billion dollar elephant in the room is money. In 2019, the NHL’s $4.57 billion in revenue was a distant fourth-place in American sports, representing less than 60 percent of MLB’s third-place total and 2.5 times less than the NFL. For experts who understand the sports media market, that fact is telling. Already fighting from behind for media coverage and TV dollars, the NHL may not want to risk ceding market share—and local airtime—to other leagues competing for fans’ hearts and wallets.

“I think the other leagues pushing through and playing during the COVID-19 crisis puts a lot of pressure on the National Hockey League to do the same, particularly because the NHL is often viewed, fairly or unfairly, as sort of the fourth of the four major sports,” Paulsen says. “If you’re out-of-sight, out-of-mind for an extended period of time while other sports are being played, that’s probably bad for your business. And I’m sure that resonates with [the NHL] as they’re making these decisions.”

Thus the NHL has persevered, endeavoring to complete a condensed regular season schedule without the “bubble” that they used so masterfully to stage the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs. But cracks have begun to form in the league’s defenses, and the math has started to change.

As of Feb. 10, one in six NHL teams has had their seasons paused due to COVID-19 outbreaks. The Washington Capitals have had a quarter of their games postponed already. Star players Alex Ovechkin, Dmitry Orlov, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Ilya Samsonov were held out four games for violating the NHL’s COVID safety protocols by gathering in a hotel room. Kuznetsov and Samsonov later tested positive for the virus, with the 23-year-old Samsonov telling reporters on Tuesday that he had difficulty “walking” and “breathing.”

And as the numbers continue to spike and these young world-class athletes struggle through their own encounters with the virus, concern for the circles they interact with grows.

“We’ve got to be very cautious about people and their families. It’s not just me; it’s my daughters, and my wife Lauren, and my father-in-law,” Capitals winger TJ Oshie told reporters on Wednesday. “The times are crazy … We got in a little bit of trouble, but our team has been outstanding at following the rules lately.” Oshie paused. “I hope the other teams are, too.”

But with vaccinations still potentially months away and no bubble in place, the COVID situation seems likely to get worse.

“The problem with COVID is that all of our contact bubbles are becoming overlapped. If you’re in contact with somebody who has it, say, in a locker room or on the ice, you have the potential of infecting other people that you come in contact with,” says Elizabeth Schaubert, a pediatric nurse practitioner who spent five years at Children’s National Hospital in D.C. “All of a sudden, a whole team is potentially infecting all of their own families, and then whoever the family members are in contact with, as well. It gets big very fast.”

Still, many players remain undeterred.

“There are people in our organization enforcing those rules. We’re doing everything we can to slow the spread,” Caps forward Conor Sheary told reporters after practice this week. Sheary, whose wife Jordan gave birth to their daughter last Saturday, has faith in the system in place. “Our medical staff and the league are doing as much as they can.”

One player who has been more vocal in his concerns about the league’s current safety protocols is Caps center Lars Eller. Always cerebral and insightful breaking down power plays and breakout passes, Eller was equally precise in voicing his frustrations with the status quo. 

“I could probably talk for 20 minutes about this,” he said with a smirk and a shrug when asked by reporters this week. “We have to do more. As this is evolving, it’s a learning curve. We need to evolve the protocols of how we protect ourselves inside buildings. Probably more can be done than just masks and distancing, because we’re doing those things, and if that alone were enough we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

According to Schaubert, Eller has a point—but there’s not much more that can be done even if the league required players to wear masks on the ice, as well. As players interact with their circles, and the school teachers, restaurant employees, and people they engage with in those circles interact with them, there is a bi-directional flow of viral transmission that is impossible to curb. And with additional air purification and ultraviolet sanitation techniques delivering mixed results and difficult to scale-up for the multinational needs of 31 NHL franchises, the only option to save the season may be the nuclear one: a full reset and restart in a bubble.

“The only way to make levels go back down is to literally cut everyone off from each other until everyone is negative, and then start over again. So, if they want to do that, yeah; if they don’t put in new protocols, then the same thing will probably keep happening again,” Schaubert says. “There’s no way to get it under control without shutting down and re-doing it again.”

The league may soon face a difficult decision if something doesn’t change. A decision that will force them to weigh economics against public safety, jobs against lives, and determination against acceptance.

It is impossible to say whether the NHL continuing to host games is contributing to the spread of COVID, or if the league may yet be able to devise a way to save the season without installing a bubble. But whatever they choose to do, they must choose wisely.

There are billions of dollars and thousands of lives on the line. Millions are watching. The stakes are high. And the NHL must decide if it can give fans the thing they love without hurting the people who love it.