National Hockey League training camps have started back up for the 2021/22 season, which means, freaking out over line combinations, breaking down bag skating clips, and checking out what Brandon Tanev’s facial expression will be this time.

It also means a topic of discussion that will be more pertinent this season than any other – vaccination status. This will be the third NHL season that is in some way impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and the first where mass-manufactured vaccinations are accessible to the players, staff, and even fans. Anyone over the age of 11 (and soon to include the 5-11 age bracket) in an NHL market should have access to free doses of the incredibly effective immunizations, which make you over 90% less likely to contract the virus (and therefore, spread it), and over 95% less likely to require hospitalization due to symptoms.

As such, an environment of fully vaccinated people is much safer than what we’ve seen in the past year and a half. It means fewer necessary protocols for the players, more access to travel, and more capacity for fans in the stands, on the condition that they are also protected. It means a much lower chance of infection at a game or practice, and it means that those events are less likely to plant seeds to spread it further into the community. All in all, vaccination allows us to return back to the game we love without endangering ourselves and the people we love.

To the NHL’s credit, they have done an exemplary job of catching up on their percentages over the course of the summer. Calgary, Carolina, Toronto, Philadelphia, Boston, Tampa Bay, Ottawa, Arizona, Buffalo, Chicago, Minnesota, Florida, Pittsburgh, Vancouver and Washington are already at 100% vaccination or are having their final players go through the last few days of taking effect. Some other teams are within a player (Dallas, Detroit, Columbus, Edmonton), while others haven’t confirmed their rates yet. The overall league rate of vaccination seems to be in the high 90s.

Not everyone has followed suit, though, which has led to a lot of discourse – par for the course with this pandemic. It can be argued that due to the polarizing political climate, and the wild west nature of the internet and social media, no common, obvious good in the history of humanity has been so needlessly divisive as the reaction to this pandemic. The whole process of recover has, frankly, been prolonged by pushback. Stay-at-home efforts never fully accomplished because people felt they were the exception. Masking efforts pushed back on by the defiant. Vaccination efforts that 20-30% of the population in North America are refusing, with a new goalpost found every week.

Columbus’ Zac Rinaldo will tell you all about it – and he did, stumping for the far-far-right People’s Party entirely due to their stance on vaccine mandates. He himself wasn’t vaccinated, despite saying he wasn’t “anti-vaxx”, and the Blue Jackets told him he was not welcome – much like they said to recently hired assistant coach Sylvain LefebvreOr, you can look to New York Islanders prospect Bode Wilde, who was a mystery player until he decided to tell his verified Instagram all about it:

The Vaccination Thing, And Respect

Wilde, of course, makes a few mistakes here. One, he’s making the big mistake of publicly trying to go up against Lou Lamoriello as a 21-year-old B to C prospect. No one should try to go up against Lou in a battle of policy, much less a player he can easily forget about without much consequence. Lamoriello is legendary for putting his personal touches on the concept of team policy, from haircuts to jersey numbers and everything in between. It can be frustrating and feel a little dated, but it’s part of his legend and there’s a reason why he gets away with it in ways that others don’t.

But team policy is kind of the point here. These teams are employers, and they’re allowed to have company policies on all sorts of things, including medical issues like vaccinations. We’ve all dealt with it at some point in our lives – as an Ontarian, I had a long list of shots I had to have by the end of middle school just to be in the school system. In fact, students today now need to be vaccinated from no less than 11 different diseases, and get three boosters in their teens. You may have already forgotten about this despite participating in similar for school, work, or something else, mostly because there wasn’t a lingering culture war when you took care of those.

The point being – sure, Wilde has the right to not take the vaccine. That’s not what’s up for debate. I’m not in favour of bursting into his home and sticking a needle up his arm while he’s unable to resist. However, others have the right to not accommodate him and his peers, who are public health risks as long as they make this decision. They increase the odds of outbreaks (even around the vaccinated, albeit at a lower percentage). They put those who legitimately can’t get the vaccine for high-risk medical reasons at even further risk. They’re putting children who are too young to get vaccinated at the moment at risk. Even if you think all of the above are low-odds scenarios, the risk they put upon themselves still fills up ICU beds, and if (heaven forbid) something happens to them, it’s suffering put towards their friends and families. Put all of this together, and it’s no wonder that teams would prefer to err on the side of caution (and by that extent, makes sense of non-essential vaccination requirements or “passports”, but that’s a topic for another day).

Wilde and others have a right to take their own risks, but so long as their risks spill onto others, those others have the right to mitigate their own.

The Vaccination Thing, And Respect

Wilde doesn’t seem to get that, though – acknowledging the immense privilege of playing hockey for a living, yet still feeling entitled to a roster spot based solely on his level.

Let’s strip all the medicals out of this, and just treat the vaccine as what it is on a checklist: A requirement that every player is capable of doing in a quick and simple fashion. Think of it like a team dress code – if the Islanders told every player to show up in a suit, and Wilde showed up in a t-shirt and shorts and then earnestly argued that it was his human right to do so, no hockey traditionalist would bat an eyelash to cutting him or otherwise reprimanding him. It would be seen as selfish and putting yourself above the team, and not conductive to a good locker room environment. We’d hear ad nauseum about intangibles and how the player is not mature enough for the pros, even if he has the talent.

This has been an accepted part of hockey for decades, sometimes to a fault when the difference is insignificant or something that’s mostly out of the player’s control. This is neither of those things. This is a relatively instantaneous act of self and peer protection that has proven itself to be one of the most important medical feats in human history over the past few years – and more importantly to the player, its benefits keep the lights on at the rink.

Not every player who has chosen not to take the jab has been as outspoken as Rinaldo or Wilde. Josh Archibald’s opinions on the pandemic are known because social media is forever (especially when you don’t hit delete), but the Edmonton forward has mostly kept his mouth shut. Tyler Bertuzzi of Detroit gave a quick “personal choice” quote to the media this week, but has otherwise stayed out of the way. Their teams are looking at ways to accommodate them from two different sides of the same coin – Archibald will have to quarantine after every trip into the US, meaning he’ll miss about 30 games. Bertuzzi just won’t travel to Canada, meaning he’ll miss 9.

Personally, I don’t see the value with bothering in the former case (Archibald is an easily replaceable player and that’s a lot of time missed), but I’m guessing that teams in these sorts of scenarios with actual NHL talent are hoping that players will relent after watching a couple losses from home where they could’ve helped. That, combined with league-enforced salary deduction might be the next effective way to get the percentages higher – if science and medical results haven’t convinced them, consequences for themselves and their teams might.

The ultimate question that comes out of this from supporters of these defiant players is a simple one – Why are you making a big deal out of this? Why don’t you just respect their choice?

The big deal part, as we’ve mostly covered, is obvious. COVID-19 doesn’t care about you being a sweet pro hockey player, or whether you’re going to watch them – if we want the NHL to return at full steam, we need to put every locker room, board room, and seat section in the safest position possible to move forward, and that means optimal protection. It’s the only realistic path to achieving normalcy in the face of a public health crisis for the time being.

As for why its important for the public to know, it’s very similar to injury status. Player availability matters for everything from fantasy sports, to betting, to opponent scouting, just plain fan-driven curiosity. Playing, mingling, and travelling unvaccinated is IR bait in the way that playing without shin pads would be. Of course that question matters.

As for respect, it depends on what your definition of respect is, and I think that’s where a lot of people get knotted up in this debate. Respect in this scenario can mean acknowledgement, and it could mean admiration and support. It most often includes the former, but it doesn’t necessarily have to mean both. It also has limits to where it’s applicable. The right of every player, staff member, or fan to go without the vaccine is respected. It is acknowledged that they, as individuals, are allowed to go with out. That respect doesn’t earn them access to scenarios that require immunization, however – and that’s where the table turns to them needing to respect the policies of regions, businesses, teams, and leagues that have instituted those policies for the greater good. Respect there means choosing to follow the policy, or to find something else to do that doesn’t come with that policy.

As for the admiration side of respect, that is not earned. I can acknowledge your choice to skip on this personal and public health measure as a choice you’re allowed to make for yourself. I do not have to admire it, and can criticize it. Many have, many will, and if players and staff continue to impede the full return of the league, I’d expect that to continue.

About the author: Jeff Veillette
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The Vaccination Thing, And Respect