SAN JOSE (CBS SF/AP) -- The National Hockey League has decided to start its holiday break a little early this year amid mounting concerns over a rise in new COVID cases among the players on teams both in the United States and in Canada.
The San Jose Sharks already had games this week with the Vancouver Canucks and the Edmonton Oilers cancelled. Now their practice facility will be closed at least until Sunday.
"Due to the concern about cross-border travel and, given the fluid nature of federal travel restrictions, all games involving a Canadian-based team playing a U.S.-based team from Dec. 20 through the start of the Holiday break on Dec. 23, will be postponed and rescheduled," the league said in a Sunday announcement.
On Monday night, the league took it one step further announcing that it will begin its annual holiday break two days earlier than scheduled and have it run through Saturday.
Dealing with COVID outbreaks is nothing new for the Sharks. Just last month, head coach Bob Boughner and seven players including Timo Meier, Erik Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic were benched for six games while spending time in the league's COVID protocol.
At the time they were ordered off the ice the team was in the throes of a three-game losing streak. But with a roster filled with minor league players, the Sharks rolled to a 3-2-1 record.
The importance of that run is not lost on Sharks forward Nick Bonino.
"You go 1-5, you put yourself behind the eight ball," Bonino said. "So to come out of this with a winning record and continue on the road with maybe some guys back is really big for us."
Monday's decision was reached in coordination with the NHL Players' Association and means five additional games scheduled for Thursday will be postponed, bringing the total this season to 49.
Two games slated for Tuesday are still set to go on as scheduled. Teams will then report back for COVID-19 testing and practice on Sunday, a day before games are set to resume. Players and members of each team's traveling party will be required to test negative before being allowed back in their respective facilities.
The decision to begin the break early comes a day after the NHL and NHLPA issued a joint statement announcing they were attempting to avoid a leaguewide shutdown by making decisions on a team-by-team basis. The holiday break was previously supposed to run from Friday to Sunday.
Of the 49 games postponed, 44 have occurred over the past two weeks with the delta and omicron variants spreading across North America.
More than 15% of the league's 700-plus players are in virus protocol, and the resulting schedule disruption almost certainly has doomed the possibility of Olympic participation. A final decision on the Beijing Games is expected this week, and the odds of NHL players returning to the Olympics for the first time since 2014 have cratered.
The Columbus Blue Jackets, Montreal Canadiens, Edmonton Oilers and Ottawa Senators on Monday became the latest teams to pause all activities because of positive COVID-19 tests. The Boston Bruins, Colorado Avalanche, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators and Toronto Maple Leafs also have their facilities closed, and the Calgary Flames just reopened theirs to players, coaches and staff not in protocol.
The U.S. and Canadian women's hockey teams were set to play a pre-Olympic game Monday night in St. Paul, Minnesota, but that was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns.
Much about the omicron coronavirus variant remains unknown, including whether it causes more or less severe illness.
Scientists say omicron spreads even easier than other coronavirus strains, including delta, and it is expected to become dominant in the U.S. by early next year.
Early studies suggest the vaccinated will need a booster shot for the best chance at preventing an omicron infection but even without the extra dose, vaccination still should offer strong protection against severe illness and death.
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