By Neil Becker
This past September, when NHL training camps officially opened up, the main topic of conversation centered around the coronavirus vaccine shot.
Some players had shown up to camp unvaccinated, including forward Zac Rinaldo. This resulted in his team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, not inviting the veteran to training camp and putting him on waivers. This came approximately a month after he signed a one-year two-way contract with the Blue Jackets. After being put on waivers, no team picked him up before management eventually told him to stay away from the Jackets AHL affiliate, the Cleveland Monsters.
"Our position has been very clear that our organization is committed to doing everything we can to ensure the health and safety of our players, coaches, staff and fans," Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen told USA Today. "Given the impact COVID-19 continues to have in our communities, we believe the best course of action given Zac's vaccination status is to not have him report to Cleveland at this time.”
“While we respect an individual's right to make a personal choice with regards to being vaccinated or not, we have a responsibility to do what we believe is best for our organization."
Prior to training camp, the Blue Jackets also fired newly appointed assistant coach Sylvain Lefebvre after he decided not to get a vaccination shot. Coaches on an NHL bench have to be vaccinated, so the Blue Jackets were left with no choice but to let him go.
"While we are disappointed, we respect that this decision is a personal one for Sylvain and wish him well," Kekalainen told CNN Sports.
According to NHL league commissioner Gary Bettman, only four players remained unvaccinated on the eve of opening night, including Detroit Red Wings forward Tyler Bertuzzi.
"Just personal choice, freedom of choice, and life choice," Bertuzzi told the Associated Press.
Due to being unvaccinated, Bertuzzi faces the stark reality of forfeiting a certain amount of salary due to not being able to play games in Canada.
"For the foreseeable future entering Canada, you can't enter Canada unless you're vaccinated so that obviously will be an issue when we go to play Canadian teams," Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman to media. "Does that change or not? I have no idea. But as of now and under the Canadian laws, I guess, he wouldn't be able to cross the border, so he wouldn't play in any games in Canada."
Prior to the 2021-22 NHL season getting underway, Bettman had some encouraging news regarding the vaccination of players and officials.
"Our vaccination rate is incredible," Bettman is reported saying by TMZ Sports. "4 players, not 4% of players. All of our officials are vaccinated. All of the personnel that come into contact with the players are vaccinated."
Meanwhile, just prior to this year's training camp, New York Islanders general manager Lou Lamorello stressed that he would allow any unvaccinated players on the team under no circumstances. He did admit that everyone, including coaches, staff and players, is vaccinated except for an unnamed minor league player, which the team is trying to move.
"We will try to help progress his career," Lamorello said via ctpost.com. “We're looking into possibly assigning him to Europe, but that has not been finalized yet. We will not allow any player in our organization to participate unless they are vaccinated."
A mid-October article from Bleacher Report mentioned that the four players not vaccinated at the time included New Jersey Devils goalie Mackenzie Blackwood and Edmonton Oilers forward Josh Archibald, to name a few.
Unfortunately, Archibald fell victim to COVID-19 this past summer and is now sidelined with myocarditis. Meanwhile, Blackwood plans on getting vaccinated in the near future.
"I still have things to do before I go one way or the other (on deciding to get vaccinated or not) but I'm probably going to be getting the shot in the next couple weeks," Blackwood told Sportsnet.
An unfortunate and ugly situation was recently revealed as San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane was given a 21 game suspension for handing to the Sharks and league what was a false vaccination card. This is something that obviously breaks the law in both Canada and the United States. This lengthy suspension, which runs until November 28th, will cost Kane $35,000 in salary.
Despite this incident, the NHL should be applauded for taking such a hard stance on players, officials and fans being vaccinated. With the Seattle Krakens making their league debut, there are now 32 NHL teams competing. Out of 736 total players, 732 are vaccinated, which shows the importance that players and the league have on safety for the players and fans alike.