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The Calgary Flames, who already had three games cancelled this week, announced Tuesday that centre Sean Monahan, forward Milan Lucic and defenceman Noah Hanifin have all been added to the league’s COVID protocol list.Mark J. Terrill/The Associated Press

The number of NHL players sidelined due to COVID-19 continues to explode just as the contagious respiratory illness has begun to spread rapidly within the general population. The Calgary Flames, who already had three games cancelled this week, announced Tuesday that centre Sean Monahan, forward Milan Lucic and defenceman Noah Hanifin have all been added to the league’s COVID protocol list. At this point, nine players and a member of the team’s training staff have been affected.

A game scheduled for Tuesday night between Carolina and Minnesota was postponed after four Hurricanes tested positive earlier in the day. On Monday, all-star forward Sebastian Aho was placed on the COVID protocol list along with one of his teammates and a trainer.

At the same time, the Boston Bruins announced two of their players, including Brad Marchand, would miss Tuesday’s contest at home against the Vegas Golden Knights. Boston had played Calgary on Saturday. The Islanders announced Matt Barzal was placed on the list and would miss Tuesday’s encounter with the Red Wings in Detroit, and Vancouver cancelled its morning skate when defenceman Luke Schenn and one other teammate tested positive. A second series of tests was conducted and the Canucks’ home game against the Columbus Blue Jackets was in jeopardy pending further results.

Vancouver had just played Carolina on Sunday night. The Canucks had 21 players and four staff members contract the virus last year which caused their season to be disrupted.

“That’s not an experience anybody wants and we don’t want that to happen again,” Jim Rutherford, the club’s president of hockey operations and interim general manager, said during an afternoon news conference via video call.

The morning skate was cancelled as a precautionary measure.

“There has to be a comfort level, and nobody was comfortable,” Rutherford said.

At this juncture, the NHL has postponed nine games this season and has had more than 100 players placed in the protocol procedure. Fifty-five games were cancelled during the 2021 campaign. It is not clear what type of COVID is being passed among the players. Most recent cases in the general population have been linked to the Delta variant, but the new Omicron variant is quickly taking root. There is growing concern everywhere, including the sports world.

The NHL has said 99.9 per cent of its players are fully vaccinated but the virus is still spreading.

“We all live in a different world now and will have to make adjustments,” Rutherford said. “It is not fun but it is the hand we have been dealt. We are always open to safer ideas.

“We follow the protocols set out by the league and the province and do the best we can.”

Rutherford said he has not had any direct discussions with the league, but he is sure that officials are looking at contingency plans if they are necessary to keep operating.

“I know the way the league works and it has experts that are on top of things,” he said. “I would assume they are working on things.”

The Maple Leafs were to play in Edmonton on Tuesday night, a game that Oilers head coach Dave Tippett was set to miss for precautionary reasons, the team announced earlier in the day. The Leafs’ game with the Flames in Calgary on Thursday has already been postponed.

“Some people may have thought [the virus] has gone away, but clearly it hasn’t,” Wayne Simmonds, the Maple Leafs forward, said Tuesday. “I know on our team we are trying to keep it tight in every capacity. We want to minimize even a chance of it running through our team.”

After sitting out the Winter Olympics in 2018, NHL players are scheduled to travel to Beijing to compete at the Games that begin in February. The league was not thrilled with the idea but agreed to it as part of negotiations with the players’ union.

At the board of governors meetings last week, commissioner Gary Bettman expressed growing concern among owners, and players have begun to have doubts as well.

Any player that tests positive for COVID-19 in China could be subject to quarantine for 21 to 35 days. That would mean they could miss a large portion of the rest of the regular season.

On Tuesday, Edmonton captain Connor McDavid addressed the issue following the Oilers’ morning skate.

“Cases are going up everywhere and we are paying attention and trying to keep each other safe,” McDavid said. He is one of only three players already named to Team Canada. “It is going to be a really fluid situation.”

McDavid caught COVID-19 during the off-season. The new Omicron variant has begun to re-infect people that have already had COVID-19. It was believed that those who have gotten over it previously were largely immune to becoming sick again.

“The three- to five-week thing has been floating around and it is obviously unsettling if that were the case,” McDavid said. “I still want to play in the Olympics, but we want make sure it is safe for everybody.”

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