The NHL remains on track to hold the 2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic at Target Field in Minneapolis on Jan. 1, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said Thursday.
The Minnesota Wild will host the St. Louis Blues in the annual New Year’s Day outdoor game at the home of baseball’s Minnesota Twins.
“Knock on wood … full speed ahead,” Daly said. “We have a full team on the ground there in Minnesota. Everybody is excited. I know the two teams are very excited for it.”
Daly said he spoke to Wild general manager Bill Guerin and Blues general manager Doug Armstrong within the past 24 hours to gauge their preparations for the game amid the spike in COVID-19 cases around the NHL and North America.
The NHL postponed 32 games this week and moved its holiday break to begin Wednesday instead of Friday. Players will return to team facilities Sunday, when they will be tested for the coronavirus.
Twenty-eight of the 32 teams are scheduled to play Monday (14 games).
“We’re relatively healthy when it comes to COVID vis a vis those two teams,” Daly said of the Wild and Blues. “I obviously hope it stays that way. But I see nothing at this point that gets in the way of us having a fantastic Winter Classic. I think Minnesota is going to be a fabulous host. We’re very excited about the venue. We’re very excited about the experience, and I think all of our fans should be looking forward to it.”
Daly said the past week has been “quite chaotic” for the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association with the number of positive COVID-19 cases rising with the presence of the omicron variant. He credited the teams for their cooperation and flexibility.
“It’s not easy for anyone, we realize that,” Daly said. “We have to, at the end of the day, prioritize the health and safety of our players and our staff members. That’s what we’re trying to do and that’s the approach we’ve taken. We’re hoping that two days extra for the holiday break and the allowance for testing on Sunday will be helpful. It’ll be a little timeout, and we’ll see what the players look like when they come back on Sunday.”
With 50 games so far postponed, the NHL announced Wednesday it was withdrawing from participation in the 2022 Beijing Olympics in February. The NHLPA publicly supported the decision.
“At the end of the day, the understanding of both parties always was that our priority, No. 1 priority really, has to be completing the NHL schedule,” Daly said. “If there was a material disruption in that schedule due to COVID-related reasons that we would have to take a pass on the Olympics. Ultimately that’s where we got to. Certainly, we’re all disappointed for the players who in particular have been fantastic through all this. We appreciate how important the Olympics is to them, but we got to the point where the Players’ Association recognized that that material disruption had happened and that this was the only sensible result.”
Daly said the NHL is working with teams to try to reschedule as many of the postponed games between Feb. 6-22, which was the window for the Olympic break. Two of the 50 have been rescheduled to date.
“We’ve sent out communication with clubs and we’re trying to confirm their open building dates, which we have a sense of from earlier communications earlier in the season,” Daly said. “We obviously will work very close with the Players’ Association. I do think we’ll have to build in some off time during that three-week period for the players as they had anticipated previously. There are a lot of boxes to check there, but I expect that we’ll be able to portion some portion of that break period to various clubs to get their players rested, and I hope to make full utilization of the period so that we can make up the games that we’ve missed.”
Daly did warn that the NHL understands it will have to navigate through COVID-related obstacles that will require more flexibility and understanding, particularly with cross-border travel between the United States and Canada.
“There are going to continue to be challenges, there are going to continue to be [COVID] positives,” Daly said. “We’re still going to have game decisions to make for the next little while. We look to the experts to kind of give us their best projections as to how this plays out, and I don’t think anybody is suggesting that it’s going down any time soon. We’re up to probably about a quarter of our (NHL) population who tested positive during the course of this year. The good news to that is they’re all fully vaccinated with one exception that I’m aware of, and I think the illness has been quite contained and mild.”