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Lightning Round: COVID-19 forces changes to NHL’s business as usual

Writer access to locker rooms has been limited across four leagues.

NHL: Philadelphia Flyers at Los Angeles Kings Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

I remember attending my first post-game Tampa Bay Lightning media scrum in the Amalie Arena home locker room and wishing I’d worn better deodorant. It wasn’t just that I was up under someone else’s armpit as I struggled to get close enough to hold out my phone to record quotes, it was that the reporters were literally forming themselves into a complicated human Jenga so that everyone could get the access to the players. I remember thinking that the first person to fall would take everyone down with them.

I think Gary Bettman’s quote about media scrums, below, is mostly correct. But it’s likely not the players who are going to infect the media. It’s the media who won’t be able to keep “social distance” while getting up close with each other and the players. Here’s a good piece from the Montreal Gazette that talks about Bettman’s recent discussion of the subject.

Coronavirus spread forcing NHL to re-evaluate how it goes about business [Montreal Gazette]

“It may be the prudent thing to do,” Bettman, speaking at last Saturday’s Florida Panthers game, said of coming up with a league-wide policy limiting media access. “As you all know, the locker room is an intimate environment and players are not always fully clothed. It may be best to have media accessibility at a podium for everybody’s health and safety, not just the players, but yours (the media). And it’s different than fans being in the stands, particularly because our players play in a closed environment.

“So we’re focused on the fact that with the tightness, the crowdedness and the intimacy of postgame availability may need to be adjusted while we’re focusing on the coronavirus.”

Yesterday, we finally received some insight into what the league is doing about this public health crisis. I’ve been covering this unexpected beat since realizing it impacted stick shipments back in early February — and it has taken this long for professional sports leagues to put rules into effect that help mitigate potentially hazardous situations. Four leagues closed their locker rooms yesterday, including the NHL:

Coronavirus: NHL one of four North American pro sports leagues closing locker rooms to media members [CBS Sports]

On Monday afternoon the NHL officially made a major precautionary decision to combat the pandemic. The four North American major professional sports leagues currently in-season — MLB, MLS, NBA and NHL — have decided to close their locker room and clubhouse doors to the media and all non-essential personnel indefinitely.

I think I understand why the leagues are doubling down on the locker room itself. As we all know, CORVID-19 is airborne, and spreads via vapor, which is why covering your sneezes and coughs is so important, and also why people wear full HAZMAT suits when dealing with patients. The locker room is relatively humid, and players are dressing straight from the showers. If any environment is conducive to the spread of the virus, it would be this type of close, water-laden air. Beyond keeping potentially infectious people out of the locker room, franchises are also taking further steps to keep these spaces sanitized.

”The coronavirus is something we all need to take seriously,” Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said. “It affected my life a lot earlier than everybody here because my kids are in Switzerland and they had all kinds of cancellations and restrictions earlier than we’ve even thought of them here, so I’ve been faced with it. It’s something we’re taking extremely seriously and I think everybody needs to take it extremely seriously.”

Players have been told to wash their hands even more than normal and most teams are taking additional steps to sanitize locker room and shower areas.

However, the Associated Press Sports Editors have taken exception to this “stay out of the locker room” policy, in part because they find it difficult to continue to do their job in locations away from this space. I’m pretty sure locker room access is a sticky situation in general, considering the wording of the joint statement below — I suspect franchises have been trying to keep writers out of the locker rooms for ages, and maybe writers feel like front offices eagerly leapt on the chance to kick writers out. Still, it’s a complex situation because writers ARE at risk, and can easily put players at risk too.

APSE issues joint statement with six writers organizations on coronavirus/media access [AP Sports Editors]

We the entities covering pro and college sports in North America are concerned with the developing international outbreak of coronavirus and the need to contain it. We understand precautions may be necessary in the name of public health. We are intent on working with the leagues, teams and schools we cover to maintain safe work environments. We also must ensure the locker room access — which we have negotiated over decades — to players, coaches and staff is not unnecessarily limited in either the short or long term. We look forward to open communication with the leagues as, together, we deal with this serious health matter.

Some writers have posed this question: why put a locker room ban into effect when you still allow fans into an equally unsafe environment?

The Capitals recently gave interviews in a hallway near the locker room, and some teams have brought players into a media room, playoffs style, to address reporters. Is this enough access for writers? Or do they need the immediacy of the locker room to properly research and write about a game?

The negotiation continues. And in the meantime, I hope our sports writing friends are taking all precautions to be safe.

Late last night, it was announced that Santa Clara County where the San Jose Sharks play has banned gatherings of over 1000 people for the next three weeks meaning the Sharks will likely play at least three home games without fans. They have a couple of other options including moving the games to a neutral site or postponing them but the most likely option, as we’ve seen in other countries that have implemented similar measures, is to play in an empty arena.

The ban will take effect on Wednesday, March 11 at midnight PT and will remain in place for three weeks, according to the County of Santa Clara Public Health Department.

The ban will likely affect three home games scheduled at the SAP Center against the Montreal Canadiens (March 19), Boston Bruins (March 21) and Arizona Coyotes (March 29).

The Bolts

Nikita Kucherov is still solidly on people’s lists for the Hart trophy (but it’s probably going to Nathan MacKinnon). NHL Power Rankings: Top MVP candidates [NHL on NBC]

Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning. The reigning league MVP should probably be getting a little more attention than he currently is. He is on track for his third consecutive 100-point season.

DID YOU KNOW that the very first all-woman NHL game broadcast happened on March 7, 2008, in a game between the New Jersey Devils and the Tampa Bay Lightning? (We lost, 2-1.) The second one happened on International Women’s Day this past weekend: Scott, Mleczko, Coyne Schofield find rhythm in all-women NHL broadcast []

The first NHL game by an all-female broadcast team was when the New Jersey Devils defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in overtime at Prudential Center on March 7, 2008, Claudine Douville and Daniele Sauvageau called the game while Helene Pelletier and France St. Louis had intermission coverage for French-language network RDS.

Tampa’s continuing its joyous trip of divisional friendship in Toronto tonight. Yay! Lightning visit Toronto looking to pad lead over Leafs [Tampa Bay Lightning]

The Lightning rank first in the NHL for goals (242) and goals per game (3.51) and are aiming to finish the regular season as the NHL’s goals and goals per game leader for the third-consecutive season.

I myself want to see another Anthony Cirelli shorty. But THW ponders that maybe he can fill a different role with Stamkos out. Lightning: Will Cirelli Find New Opportunity During Stamkos’ Absence? [THW]

With Stamkos injured, the Lightning’s top power play will be forced to make some changes. Even before his absence, the unit was ineffective, registering just six goals in 61 attempts to start out 2020.

Depending on how things go, Cirelli could be part of those changes. He has the offensive talent to be effective with the man advantage, with his defense adding some needed responsibility to a unit that sometimes gets too fancy for their own good.

For people who follow the doings of the Solar Bears, Trace came out with a rather sad weekly report. Solar Bears Week in Review: Falling Out of Place [Raw Charge]

With many personnel changes over the last two weeks thanks to the ECHL trade deadline and the AHL needing bodies to fill in rosters, the team picked the worst time to go on a four-game losing streak. After hanging around in the South Division playoff picture for most of the season, Orlando now finds themselves on the outside looking in...and in danger of falling further if play doesn’t improve.

And last but not least, if you haven’t read Lauren’s great piece about Exceptional Status, give it a look. [Raw Charge]

What began as a slow-ish start to his 15-year old OHL season has turned into a record-breaking, history-making performance. Wright became the first OHL rookie to score 40 goals since Andrei Svechnikov — and the only other player to reach that mark in his 15-year old rookie year since Tavares.

And wash your hands.