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Is the KHL putting Vasily Podkolzin at increased risk of getting infected by COVID-19?

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While NHL players self isolate, KHL teammates sweat together in close proximity.

2019 NHL Scouting Combine
Vasily Podkolzin (left) and Roman Bychkov (right) pose for a photo during the 2019 NHL Scouting Combine on June 1, 2019 at Harborcenter in Buffalo, New York.
Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

NHL players are practicing social distancing. They are doing their part to help stem the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic and doing their best to keep everyone, including their families and themselves, as safe as possible from contracting the disease.

Meanwhile in Russia, KHL hockey players are practicing like it’s the summer of 2019. They are skating and working out together. They are knocking into each other on the ice and sweating in the gym mano a mano.

Social media is filled with NHL players, including many Vancouver Canucks, keeping active in social isolation while keeping their distance from their fellow skaters and teammates.

The NHL made sure their players were able to return to their home-bases wherever that may be. On the other hand, the KHL is holding some international players as contractual hostages.

Canadian hockey players Justin Azevedo, Patrice Cormier and Matt Frattin are amongst the non-Russian players stuck in Russia away from their home country. They are contractually obligated to their Ak Bars Kazan KHL club until April 30th, 2020.

The Gagarin Cup playoffs are now essentially meaningless with two of the final eight clubs in the hunt for the Championship having already pulled out from the competition. The two squads that have forfeited their playoffs rights are based in Finland and Kazakhstan.

Yet the KHL brass is seemingly out-of-touch with its own members and indeed the rest of the hockey world. It appears intent to soldier on with only its remaining six Russian-based playoff teams.

The KHL has now agreed to pause its season but only until April 10th. If the Gagarin Cup playoffs continue on April 11th this would leave only 19 days for the league to complete its season before their players’ contracts expire on April 30th.

Meanwhile in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Canucks’ blue-chip prospect Vasily Podkolzin, unlike his socially-distancing future Canucks’ teammates, goes face-to-face and toe-to-toe with his current teammates seemingly undeterred by the risks. Of course, he is a 19-year-old kid on a professional profit-based team and he has little or no say in what he does in his work life while indentured to them.

Before the Iron Curtain fell in 1991, NHL clubs would help hockey players trapped behind it defect to the West. However, those players were from the communist satellite nation of Czechoslovakia (The Stastny brothers, Vaclav Nedomansky). The first player ever to defect from the now defunct Soviet Union was eventual Vancouver Canuck Alexander Mogilny, who began his NHL career in Buffalo in 1989.

Times of course have changed. Mogilny who risked his life to leave Soviet Russia in 1989 now resides again in his Motherland and is employed as the President of the Amur Khabarovsk KHL club. Podkolzin is trapped not by a gun-patrolled tall wall but instead by a piece of paper he signed for his puck-handling services.

It is pretty much an accepted fact that Podkolzin will need to play out the final season of his KHL contract before joining the Vancouver Canucks organization in 2021. Still you’ve got to think that general manager Jim Benning lies awake nights trying to figure out if there is a way to get Podkolzin to Canada now. It must irk him to see one of his prize draft jewels handled so carelessly. Afterall, hockey players are not immune to infection from Covid-19.