It was a definite step toward normalcy as the Toronto Maple Leafs conducted their media day without the common virtual trappings we've come to expect in sport over the past many months. For the first time since the start of the pandemic, reporters were in spitting distance (for a lack of a better term) of players, coaches, and management, meaning questions and answers no longer had to be sent through a lens into the internet void.
Although an adjustment, the newest normal seemed highly refreshing. It was, at the very least, evidence that all involved in the day-to-day operations around a hockey team were loosening.
Except for one. For now.
There was a bit of a surprise at the end of a predictably underwhelming and neutered press availability on Wednesday morning, which was forward William Nylander taking the stand with a mask strapped across his face. Illustrating an example of the concessions that will have to be made by being a contrarian in the NHL in a pandemic world, the necessary accessory in all of our lives was still required for Nylander because he, unlike the overwhelming majority of players in the NHL, is not yet fully vaccinated.
Nylander said he's wearing a mask because he's not fully vaccinated yet but will be before the start of the season.
Said it was an "easy choice" to get vaccinated though. pic.twitter.com/UVwkEccrzP
— Adam Laskaris (@adam_la2karis) September 22, 2021
Not to worry, however, as Nylander would quickly explain that he will be fully vaccinated before the start of the season, and will have the opportunity then to ditch the mask when working inside Leafs facilities.
Nylander explained that medical reasons prevented him from taking the vaccine sooner, which is a fully valid and acceptable reason for not being vaccinated. Rocky Thompson, a former assistant coach with the San Jose Sharks, can't take the vaccine for those very same reasons. He stepped down earlier this month, stating that he couldn't perform his duties while following the stringent protocols for unvaccinated professionals working in close contact with NHL players and staff. Unlike Thompson, Nylander's medical issues have either been cleared up, or the vaccine has been deemed safe for him.
It's worth noting that the Maple Leafs were presented with the opportunity to be vaccinated as early as last May, and well before their disastrous seven-game defeat at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens in Round 1. There was no data shared at the time in terms of percentage of players vaccinated, but it's clear that Nylander either couldn't, or turned down, the opportunity then.
Leafs GM Kyle Dubas vowed on the "Bob McCown Podcast" earlier this month that the Maple Leafs organization would be 100 percent vaccinated, and that they were already "good to go." With Nylander, clearly loose ends would have to be (and will be) tied up.
Nylander missed a few games last season after a close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. He skated with the team following that contact, creating some panic in the market, but the team avoided shutting down activities due to the short incubation period following the exposure.
Though it's incredibly positive that 98 percent of NHL players have been vaccinated, leaving only a handful of players at higher risk (and at least one without a job), it seems like privacy of the 10-15 unvaccinated players will be impossible to protect. Nylander's situation was revealed almost immediately, while Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland shared an example of vaccine hesitancy on his team on the first day of camp, mentioning in passing that he's glad Duncan Keith decided to get the jab.
Holland also mentioned that he expects the team's remaining unvaccinated player, who for now remains anonymous, to potentially miss upwards of 30 games — a situation that will be impossible to keep under wraps.
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