As NHL’s return-to-play looms, let’s respect those opting out

Lots of interesting news has come about in the NHL over the past few days. The return-to-play structure, hub cities, hotel choices, schedules and all, have been set in as firm a stone as you can in these times. The Collective Bargaining Agreement has been restructured and extended for six more years, ushering in an era of labour peace that usually requires a purposeful play stoppage rather than an inadvertent one. For better or worse, we’re venturing into the wilderness (no, not Banff or Jasper) in the next few weeks.

However, a key part of this agreement, much like in the other sports pushing forward, is the ability for individual players to opt out of the postseason should they not feel comfortable with playing. Players have until Monday to opt out without any form of reprocussions. So far, we’ve see two cases, both from Western Canadian teams: Travis Hamonic in Calgary, and Sven Baertschi in Vancouver.

Hamonic’s statement spoke to prior experience, as his first child suffered a respiratory virus shortly after being born. While she survived, the Hamonic family just brought their second child into the world, and they don’t see the risk of repeating that life-or-death moment again. Baertschi, at the time of me publishing this piece, has yet to put out a statement, but Canucks general manager Jim Benning has stated that “It was a difficult decision, but ultimately one we respect and understand”, according to Vancouver Province reporter Patrick Johnston.

Hamonic and Baertschi are the first two to opt out, but they likely won’t be the last. With COVID-19’s global impact, and the common nature of pre-existing conditions that make the virus worse, players are likely to have experiences that will make them have second thoughts about playing in a tournament that is, in a lot of ways, significantly different from the Stanley Cup they’ve signed up for and dreamed of. Even if one feels comfortable with their own odds, there is a certain degree of helplessness at play when you’re in a firm bubble for weeks and months, not being able to come to assistance if your family, friends, neighbours, etc fall victim in a particularly harsh way – not to mention the general mental drain of being nowhere but at work or in a solitary hotel room.

Hockey’s culture will, of course, combat this, and likely lead to a lower percentage of opt-outs than in other leagues. We’ve all been conditioned for years to play through physical and mental adversity, even when it is objectively a bad idea, because anything else would be not showing the toughness of a real hockey player, or not showing the camaraderie of being a real teammate. I’ve already seen reporters talk about hiding injuries or trying to keep contract statuses safe in regards to the currently opted-out duo, and fans talking about the players “giving up” on the their teams.

To me, that’s grossly unfair to the players, and is one part of our ecosystem that requires change for the good of the sport. In Hamonic’s case, the reason he gave for wanting to stay behind is extremely legitimate. For Baertschi, we don’t know for sure what his reason is. Both of these should be treated equally, however, and treated with respect. The pressure we put on these players to suck up their fears and concerns often leaves them physically and mentally broken when their careers are over – extending that treatment to their concern about a global pandemic that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and derailed millions, one that we haven’t quite defeated yet, is super unfair. The decision to return to play is still an incredibly polarizing one, even amongst people who’s lives are centred around the game – so it’s important that we treat the feelings and decisions of these individuals who aren’t comfortable with respect and understanding, no matter who ends up backing out.

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