NEWARK, N.J. — New Jersey Devils goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood said that he’s chosen not to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, making him potentially unavailable for some of his team’s games this season.
The 24-year-old starter said he’s “not currently” vaccinated, leaving open the possibility that he could still get the vaccine. He’s the only Devils player currently unvaccinated.
“I’ve not decided one way or the other whether I’m doing it. I’m taking a little bit of extra time,” Blackwood said. “I have a couple of health concerns and health reasons why I’m working through it a little slower. I wanted to check off a couple of boxes, and not rush to do it.”
The NHL estimates that around 98% of its players will have been vaccinated before the season begins Oct. 12. There was no vaccine mandate by the league, but teams have strongly encouraged their players to get vaccinated, especially due to travel restrictions.
Per an NHL and the NHLPA agreement on COVID-19 protocols, teams will have the ability to suspend unvaccinated players without pay if they can’t participate in hockey activities. That includes the inability to play games in Canada. While the NBA has a “National Interest Exemption” so its unvaccinated players can compete in road games against the Toronto Raptors, the NHL did not apply for such an exemption to the country’s travel quarantine rule for its U.S.-based teams.
The Devils play teams in Canada nine times this season. Their first trip is on Dec. 3, at the Winnipeg Jets.
Blackwood said that the Devils haven’t said anything about potentially being suspended for not having been vaccinated for those road trips.
Unvaccinated players will also have their movements restricted on the road in the U.S., facing social distancing protocols that their vaccinated teammates will not.
“I’m not trying to be a distraction to them while I work through it,” Blackwood said. “I don’t like making life more difficult for the staff or my fellow teammates. I would rather things be normal.”
Blackwood said there are several factors he’s considering in his decision, including the impact his unvaccinated status could have on his relationship with teammates.
“First and foremost is health. Second of all the social impact is has on my teammates and myself. I care about every single person in that dressing room and I would never want to put them in a situation where I make their job on the ice harder or put them in a position to lose,” he said. “The financial loss isn’t something that I’ve thought about, because it’s not as important to me.”
Blackwood had a significant case of COVID-19 last season, right before an outbreak on the Devils roster. He had a heavy cough and trouble breathing, saying at the time that he “didn’t have the greatest lungs my whole life” and knew COVID-19 would impact him.
Blackwood missed six games after entering the COVID-19 protocol Jan. 20. The Devils had 20 members in the protocol, and were shut down as a team for the first 15 days of February.
“I know it’s serious. I know it’s not something you can take lightly. I had it, and I had it not very good,” he said.
The goalie said that the presence of COVID-19 antibodies in his system is “one of the reasons why I have the ability to take a little extra time,” but he said he understands they won’t be there forever.
Blackwood said he’s now “100% healthy” from COVID-19 — although he did have offseason surgery on his heel, from which he’s recovering — and had no further complications from his illness during the offseason.
Blackwood is considered New Jersey’s goalie of the future. He’s entering his fourth season in the NHL, having gone 46-41-12 in 105 games, with a .911 save percentage and a 2.83 goals-against average.
The Devils bolstered their goaltending in the offseason by signing veteran Jonathan Bernier, 33, to a 2-year, $8.25-million contract. The next veteran down the depth chart is likely Scott Wedgewood, 28, who appeared in 16 games last season.
Some teams have taken action against those who have chosen not to get the vaccine. The Columbus Blue Jackets fired assistant coach Sylvain Lefebvre and demoted forward Zac Rinaldo to the AHL due to their non-vaccinated status.
Rinaldo, Blackwood and Detroit Red Wings forward Tyler Bertuzzi, who is also unvaccinated, are clients of agent Todd Reynolds. “I think Todd’s a guy who supports the player’s decision. I think that’s more of a coincidence than anything else,” Blackwood said.