COVID-19 Protocols in the NHL: Tampa Bay vs. the Washington Capitals

Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos made waves this past Sunday when he shared on Twitter an image of his team gathering to watch the Super Bowl. The post in question is noted below.

This image provoked a backlash, particular from Washington Capitals fans, who wondered how exactly the Tampa Bay Lightning were allowed to gather as a team to watch the game, when the Capitals had their key players—Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, and Ilya Samsonov—forced to miss games for gathering together in a hotel room earlier this season.

It is worth noting that COVID-19 outbreaks have been plaguing the NHL this year. While the NHL’s 2020 playoff bubble experiment was a success in terms of preventing COVID-19 outbreaks,[1] outbreaks began occurring during the 2021 season as soon as training camps began.[2] To date, several teams have had players miss time due to “COVID protocol related absences,” prompting the rescheduling of at least 35 total games.[3] This has even included the removal of players in-game due to delays in testing and postponement due to the fear of an outbreak due to the uncertainty of players’ tests.[4]

With this occurring throughout the league, why is there different treatment between the Capitals and the Lightning?

First up, the Washington Capitals.

Back on January 20, the Capitals’ Russian players violated COVID-19 safety protocol when they engaged in “social interactions . . . in close contact and . . . were not wearing face coverings” together in a hotel room.[5] This also led to a fine by the NHL against the Capitals for $100,000.[6]

The problem was that Washington’s goalie, Ilya Samsonov, tested positive for COVID-19 after all four gathered in a Pittsburgh hotel room.[7] Eventually, Evgeny Kuznetsov would follow suit.

Under the NHL’s Arena Restart COVID-19 Safety Protocols and Positive Test Protocols, anyone who has “close contact” with an individual who tested positive, such as Samsonov, is subject to additional requirements.[8] Merely “close contact”—spending 15 minutes or more within 6 feet of an individual who tests positive—results in either heightened testing or isolation protocol depending on if that person who had contact subsequently tests positive or negative for COVID-19.[9]

However, if that person is considered a “high risk close contact”—meaning they met the requirements of a close contact, but there were additional factors, like being unmasked, with in-person meetings, extended interaction, or in small spaces with limited ventilation (such as in a hotel room in Pittsburgh), the team’s doctor can require those individuals to quarantine.[10] This is likely what happened to Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Samsonov, and Orlov, which was confirmed by Capitals reporter Samantha Pell, who stated that the decision was made based on “the likelihood that the person contracted the virus.”[11] Therefore, mandatory quarantine and team punishment was warranted for the Capitals’ players under the NHL rules.

That brings us to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Since Stamkos posted the picture on Twitter, the Lightning, including Stamkos, played two NHL games: February 8, a 4-1 win against the Nashville Predators, and February 9, a 6-1 win against the Nashville Predators. Stamkos hinted that the team watched the game on the road, as indicated by his picture’s caption “[w]ish we were in Tampa . . . .” This makes sense given that the Lightning began playing back-to-back games against the Predators—both in Nashville—the following day.

Judging by the picture, the team appears to be watching from a conference room with the football game being projected on a screen. This appears to be permissible under the NHL’s rules.

Under the NHL’s Arena Restart Protocols, Club Travel Protocol, a team must make efforts to get an exclusive player “common area or lounge” to be used solely by the players.[12] It must meet Tennessee and/or Nashville’s local restrictions regarding capacity, allow for social distancing, and occupants must be wearing facemasks. While the picture shows the team posing for a photo during the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl victory, all players were wearing facemasks. Assuming the players chose to watch the game in this communal area, and the area was otherwise sufficient under the Club Travel Protocol, it is likely that this type of interaction was permitted under the NHL’s COVID-19 guidelines, even if it seems counterintuitive to minimizing COVID-19 exposure. While the rules mandate that players remain socially distance, rather than congregated (say, to take a picture),[13] in absence of any positive test from the Lightning, the extent to which it violates protocol, is at best, minimal.

Since Tampa Bay had no players on the NHL’s COVID Protocol List as of February 10,[14] Tampa Bay’s actions, while plausibly upsetting to the general public appear not to be in conflict with the NHL’s rules as of Super Bowl Sunday. Contrasted with the actions of the Capitals, the decision not to punish the Lightning was probably correct.

ADDENDUM #1: Beginning February 11, 2021, until at least February 28, 2021, new, enhanced protocols have been enacted by the NHL to help minimize the risk of exposure. These new measures have been announced here:

Under these new measures, the Lightning’s actions may have been more likely to violate the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol since the new measures explicitly state that players should not spend “extended time . . . together” unless adhering to social distancing and the wearing of facemasks.

This is clearly an indication that the NHL believes that players should not be around each other for extended time, such as watching a football game, unless strictly following its guidelines. We will probably see fewer NHL teams act as the Lightning did last Sunday in response to these measures.

[1] NHL statement on COVID-19 testing results, (Sept. 28, 2020),;

[2] NHL Media Relations, NHL Statement on COVID-19 Testing Results, (Jan. 12, 2021),

[3] J.J. Regan, As Capitals preach caution, NHL’s COVID protocols try to keep up, NBC Sports Washington (Feb. 10, 2021),

[4] Id.; J.J. Regan, Why Flyers had games postponed to COVID but Caps didn’t, NBC Sports Washington (Feb. 10, 2021),

[5] Jenna Ciccotelli, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov Among 4 Capitals Placed on COVID-19 List, Bleacher Report (Jan. 20, 2021),

[6] Id.

[7] Samantha Pell, It’s early in the NHL’s pandemic season, but the Capitals already see how tough it will be, Washington Post (Jan. 23, 2021, 1:50 PM),

[8] Positive Test Protocol,, 10,

[9] Id.

[10] Id., at 10–11.

[11] Samantha Pell, It’s early in the NHL’s pandemic season, but the Capitals already see how tough it will be, Washington Post (Jan. 23, 2021, 1:50 PM),

[12] Club Travel Protocol,, 10,

[13] Id., 1, 9–10.

[14] Staff, NHL COVID Protocol list – Feb. 10, TSN (Feb. 10, 2021),

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close