New Jersey Devils fans have been nervously biting their nails since general manager Tom Fitzgerald announced the squad was home to only one unvaccinated player, and this has only intensified once reports surfaced. that the player was a “prominent” player. Well, it’s official: the devil in question is aspiring goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood, and that’s not the best news for a young player (and a team) looking for a new season.
Heavy restrictions have been placed on players unvaccinated by the NHL this season, and Blackwood must now comply unless he ultimately gets the jab. Let’s break down exactly what that means and how it could affect the squad this season.
Blackwood to miss Canadian road trips
Unvaccinated NHL players cannot cross the U.S.-Canada border, meaning the Thunder Bay, Ont., Blackwood native would have to be absent every day. Devils road trip in the north. Therefore, he risks losing his salary for each day the team stays in Canada (unless he is determined to have legitimate medical or religious reasoning for resisting the vaccine).
The Devils travel to Canada on December 3 to face the Winnipeg Jets. NHL protocols dictate that a player must wait two weeks after his vaccination is complete to cross the border, so the last Blackwood could be vaccinated in order to travel with the team is the week of November 14. New Jersey won’t return to Canada until the weekend of January 15, when they face the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs.
Unfortunately, six of the Devils’ last 23 games will be played in Canada. For a team that claims to want to play in meaningful games this season, you have to think that being mathematically in playoff contention with 25 games to go is part of the plan. While Blackwood is still not vaccinated by this potentially pivotal point in the campaign, his absence could be the difference between a playoff berth and a run that narrowly missed.
New Jersey’s alleged replacement is veteran goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who they signed in the last offseason on a two-year contract.
Many other precautions await Blackwood
In addition to the border issues, Blackwood will be significantly handicapped on other road trips this season. The new protocols call for unvaccinated players to be relegated to their hotels, training facilities and arenas when their teams are on the road; no bars, pools, restaurants or gyms. Unvaccinated players also cannot have teammates or visitors in their hotel rooms.
Blackwood will also be prohibited from carpooling or using saunas with the team. Instead of being tested for COVID-19 every three days like those who took the vaccine, the unvaccinated must take one every day. The rules are plentiful but appropriate for a league that last season saw the problems that a team-wide COVID outbreak brings. At some point in 2020-21, 25 Vancouver Canucks players and coaches contracted the virus, obviously endangering the health of everyone involved, but also derailing the league’s carefully structured schedule.
For the most part, the young Devils goaltender will have to spend a lot of time in isolation rather than with his teammates. At 24, it probably won’t be easy, but he knows the rules and can change his decision at any time of the season.
Blackwood will be under the microscope
After two straight seasons where Blackwood’s save percentage and goals-against average deteriorated, the man many believe will be the future goalie for the Devils was going to come under close scrutiny in 2021-22 anyway. Now, with his vaccination decision and the ensuing consequences, the proverbial microscope above his head will be even bigger. Not only will the scenario for his much-needed rebound season be discussed, but the potential harm his decision may bring to the team and to himself will likely be at the forefront of the conversation.
Will Blackwood’s absence cost the Devils significant points? Will he be a distraction in the locker room? How will he deal with the isolation? How will New Jersey deal with it, especially if it struggles?
These are all valid questions, but we’ll have to wait until at least mid-October to get some semblance of an answer. Of course, Blackwood still has time to make a decision regarding vaccination, and if the following quote provided by Athleticism Editor-in-chief Corey Masisak is saying anything but the goalie’s decision is anything but final at the moment.
Devils fans will just have to wait and see how this one plays out.
Vincent Velotta is a New York-based freelance journalist who covers the New Jersey Devils for The Hockey Writers. He has covered sports and entertainment for a variety of outlets including Village Voice, Minute Media, etc.