NHL grapples with vaccine inequity between U.S. and Canada

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This photo provided by the New York Rangers shows New York Rangers NHL hockey defenseman Jacob Trouba receiving a dose of COVID-19 vaccine at Madison Square Garden in New York on Wednesday, April 7, 2021. The New York Rangers canceled practice so players, coaches and staff could get vaccinated against COVID-19, and Trouba was front and center to take his shot off the ice. (Nick Homler/New York Rangers via AP)

His smile covered by a light blue surgical mask, Jacob Trouba's eyes shined as the needle went into his left arm.

The New York Rangers gave players, coaches and staff a day off this week so they could get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“We’re very fortunate to be able to get that vaccine,” Trouba said.

As vaccinations ramp up past a pace of 3 million a day in the U.S, the NHL is in a tougher spot than the other three major North American professional sports leagues because seven of its 31 teams are based in Canada. While the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball are relaxing virus protocols when a certain percentage of each team is fully vaccinated, the top hockey league in the world is facing a severe outbreak with the Vancouver Canucks and grappling with vaccine inequity on opposite sides of the border.

“It all comes down to the government guidelines, and it’s out of our control,” U.S.-born Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck said. “You definitely see the States getting out the vaccinations well and it’s very good, very nice, and it’d be nice to see that in Canada, but I don’t know the logistics of it all.”

Canada has lagged in vaccinations because, like many other countries, it lacks the ability to manufacture vaccines and has had to rely on the global supply chain. While hope is on the way with 45 million doses expected to be available by July for the nation of 38 million people, cases in Canada are surging, and the NHL is not immune.

The Canucks reported 21 players and four staff members tested positive for the virus and another is considered a close contact. Team physician Jim Bovard called the outbreak “a stark reminder of how quickly the virus can spread and its serious impact, even among healthy, young athletes.”

The NHL got around the U.S.-Canada border being closed to nonessential travel by making this 56-game season divisional play only, with the seven Canadian teams only facing each other.