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The NHL’s “unfit to play” guidance is going to frustrate fans, journalists

It’s responsible in this age of COVID-19 but less transparent.

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at St. Louis Blues Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Back in early June, when the NHL was preparing to slowly begin their return to play plan, it was leaked to the press that the Maple Leafs’ star player, Auston Matthews, had COVID-19. Matthews himself did not leak this, and neither did his agent. Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun took it upon himself to leak a medical diagnoses to the hockey world, who immediately glommed onto it and turned Matthews into the poster child for the perils of opening the league during the pandemic. A month later, Matthews confirmed that he had a basically asymptomatic case of it.

In professional sports, players don’t have much control over their play-related injuries, but they do have control over their private medical information unless they want it released. Fans are used to getting, at the very minimum, “upper body injury” or “lower body injury” out of a team’s coaching staff whenever a player is injured; sometimes more information is released, sometimes less. Coaching staffs tend to be more mum about these things during the playoffs to prevent the opposition from figuring out player weak spots whenever an injured person returns to play.

Fans and armchair coaches are going to be missing this topic of discussion this post-season. The NHL, in an effort to protect players from speculation about COVID-19 diagnosis, the NHL has shifted to a blanket “unfit to play” statement. Is it an injury? Is it COVID-19 exposure? Is it a diagnosis? Who knows! It’s causing confusion among fans, but it’s also giving people a lot to chatter about. The Blackhawks’ starting goaltender, Corey Crawford, is currently unfit to play, with an unclear timetable for return. Michael Grabner and Derek Stepan of the Arizona Coyotes are out. What feels like half of the Boston Bruins, including David Pastrnak, Tuukka Rask, Torey Krug, and David Krejci, are all unfit to play. The Blues’ Vince Dunn has missed two practices in a row, but no statement has been made regarding if he, too, is “unfit to play.”

ESPN’s Emily Kaplan discusses how teams are handling this policy, and it roughly breaks down to “they can’t say anything.” This is jarring when you notice Sidney Crosby isn’t at a practice. The upshot of this new policy is that it places the power of releasing private medical information in the hands of the players, which is where it belongs. NHL players haven’t been as outspoken on diagnoses as NBA and MLB players have been, which increases speculation, but that’s their medical right. For now, NHL fans are going to have to get used to yet another aspect of “the new normal” of playing the game during a pandemic.