The Capitals' COVID-19 Punishment Was Harsh – But They Support It

You can question the difference between gathering in a hotel room and a dressing room or bench, but it doesn't matter. The rules are the rules, and every violation inches the 2020-21 season closer to getting consumed by the pandemic.
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For the 2020-21 NHL season to work, it had to operate under a strict set of pandemic-necessitated guidelines. Otherwise, a season in which athletes were free to travel between eight different cities to play a contact sport would end abruptly. The COVID-19 outbreaks would be too swift to contain.

That’s why the NHL had to make an example of the first team to seriously violate the mandated COVID-19 protocols. It slapped the Washington Capitals with a $100,000 fine Wednesday after learning that captain Alex Ovechkin, goaltender Ilya Samsonov, top center Evgeny Kuznetsov and blueliner Dmitry Orlov gathered together in a hotel room during a road trip.

Players are not permitted to interact outside any team-approved areas, and each player is required to stay in a single-occupancy room, not allowing any guests or other team personnel inside. Per the NHL, on the road, “players and staff cannot patronize or enter internal venues other than the designated hotel, the practice facility or the game arena." The minute the Caps’ Russian quartet fraternized in a single room, they broke the rules. They were “in close contact and not wearing face coverings,” according to the NHL.

As a result of the violation, the Capitals placed Ovechkin, Samsonov, Kuznetsov and Orlov on the COVID-19 restricted list, striking them from Friday’s game against the Buffalo Sabres and beyond. Any player placed on the list can’t practise or play, and coach Peter Laviolette said in a Zoom availability Thursday he expects each player to miss four games before the situation is reviewed again.

“It’s hard – those were four big pieces for us, and important pieces, so they’ll be missed," Laviolette told reporters Thursday. "It’s a difficult thing. We totally understand why the rules are in place, and there’s no arguing with that. We want to be compliant, and we made a mistake, and we need to do a better job. Honestly, even I made a mistake. I dropped my mask. It was out there at the end of (a recent game) in the celebration. I’ve got to do a better job, too. It’s a learning lesson for everybody, because it is real stuff that we’re talking about. We don’t take it lightly. We’re trying to be 100 percent compliant, and yet, when you make a mistake, it can be costly."

The designations don’t mean any of the players necessarily has COVID-19, but that's one possible explanation for landing on the list. Per the NHL’s 2020-21 protocol, the reasons for being placed on the list include: “(1) an initial positive test which remains unconfirmed until confirmatory testing is completed pursuant to the Positive Test Protocol; (2) mandated isolation for symptomatic individuals pursuant to the Positive Test Protocol; (3) required quarantine as a high-risk close contact in accordance with the Positive Test Protocol; (4) isolation based on a confirmed positive test result and/or; (5) quarantine for travel or other reasons as outlined in the COVID-19 Protocol.”

(update: Per The Washington Post's Samantha Pell, Samsonov tested positive for COVID-19, and the team learned of his positive test Tuesday night.)

The $100,000 fine wasn’t the maximum allowable under the NHL’s current protocol, but fact that a $100,000 fine isn’t the most severe punishment sends a stern message on what more severe violations would bring. 

“I regret my choice to spend time together with my teammates in our hotel room and away from the locker room areas," Ovechkin said in a statement Wednesday. "I will learn from this experience.”

Might some people view the punishment as harsh or the rules inconsistent when players are allowed to sit shoulder to shoulder on the bench during games or interact in approved lounges at team hotels on the road? Certainly. Ovechkin's wife, Nastya, posted about her frustrations with the perceived inconsistencies on Instagram Thursday, even claiming that Ovechkin and Orlov had COVID-19 antibodies already. But the punishment is necessary. Being overly strict is the only path to completing the 2020-21 regular season outside a bubble. On-bench interaction in games comes from players who have already been tested and approved for daily play. And those interactions can't happen without a mask. The key is to make the distinction between them and situations in which masks are an option, Capitals right winger T.J. Oshie pointed out Thursday.

“Some’s people’s families have been affected by this, some haven’t," Oshie said. "Some don’t know anyone who’s gotten COVID, and it doesn’t really scare them. I think the way the rules seem to me is… we control what we know we can control, right? I can’t go out there and give my best effort if I’m wearing a mask and can’t breathe on the bench. By the same token, if we’re on the bus or doing other things where I can control that, that’s where the rules are set in for us. Do I like them? Of course not. I don’t think anyone likes wearing a mask, but they’re there to keep us safe at times when we can control them. As a team, we’ve got to be a bit better at doing that.”

The minute players go “off the grid” with unregulated interactions, more variables get introduced for transmitting the virus, even if the interactions seem relatively innocent. 

“We’ve been reminded that these aren’t normal times, and no one’s used to it and no one’s comfortable with wearing a mask all the time," Oshie said. "We’re a team that happens to be very close and likes to be together, and we’ve just been reminded that there are rules in place to keep everybody safe, and we just have to follow those all the time.”

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