Does a Bodychecking Ban Actually Reduce COVID-19 Risk?

The Ontario Minister of Sport has prohibited bodychecking in the OHL in the name of protecting players from infection. But how much safer will they actually be without hitting? Infectious disease experts weigh in.
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“Outrageous.”

“Ludicrous.”

“Damaging to long-term development.”

Hockey Twitter did not react kindly when the news of the proposed OHL bodychecking ban dropped Oct. 30. Debate followed on whether the ruling was final, but Lisa MacLeod, the Ontario Minister of Sport, quickly clarified that a negotiation was not happening. The decision was made in the name of reducing players’ risk of COVID-19 transmission, and the decision was final.

“Our public health officials have been clear – prolonged or deliberate contact while playing sports is not permitted,” she tweeted.

So that’s it. No bodychecking in the OHL this season, which is slated to commence Feb. 4.

Now picture a game when that season starts. No hitting means no quick collisions and rapid exchanges of respiratory droplets upon impact, but players will still line up for faceoffs, their heads close together for several seconds. They’ll still battle for pucks in corners, pressed against each other. They’ll still jockey for position in front of the net. Many variations of close physical contact occur during a hockey game. Will a bodychecking ban tangibly reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission at all, then? There’s a case to be made that the cons could outweigh the pros since a year without bodychecking could (a) harm players’ development and (b) jeopardize their long-term safety as their reflexes for delivering and receiving hits could be dulled and put them at risk of injury once hitting resumes.

Scientifically, then, why do it?

The first reason is a technicality. As explained by Dr. Michelle Murti, a public health physician with Public Health Ontario, removing bodychecking was part of a sweeping measure to eliminate the most obvious forms of body contact from multiple sports. Hits in hockey fell into the same category as wrestling or boxing, which was grounds for instant removal. That’s why bodychecking was specifically singled out and treated differently than other individual aspects of hockey, she said.

From Public Health Ontario's perspective, while bodychecking isn’t the only way to transmit COVID-19 during a hockey game, it is one way, so eliminating one clear risk is better than eliminating none.

“There’s a lot about hockey that poses a risk for COVID transmission,” Dr. Murti said. “We’ve seen many outbreaks associated with hockey. It’s not about necessarily just that one action of bodychecking, but there is a specific risk with that. There is very close contact. You’re coming in, you’re breathing hard, you’re exerting yourself. The chance that you may be expelling more droplets than you normally would into the other person’s face at that moment is pretty high. Yes, it’s a split second, but if that’s a split second that you’re exhaling or even spitting into somebody else’s face, those droplets, if you’re infected, are really going straight at that other person, and that could be enough to cause transmission.”

That’s one school of thought. The other suggests that, because bodychecking is so far down the list of risky disease-spreading behaviors during a game, banning it will do so little good that it’s actually more likely to do harm. On top of the player-development problem, no hitting could actually lead to more puck battles – and more prolonged battles. If you can’t separate an opponent from the puck with a split-second collision, you may have to battle for the puck at a standstill with close contact for a few seconds longer.

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist at Toronto General Hospital, stresses that opinions on the bodychecking decision are value judgments rather than scientific quantifications given how early we still are in the process of understanding COVID-19 – and that everyone is still just speculating at this point. That said: he believes removing bodychecking will have a minimal impact when there is so much other fleeting close contact during a game.

“I can’t look anyone in the eye and tell them with a straight face how much incremental safety that’s going to add,” Dr. Bogosh said. “When we look at the game of hockey and what the contact is and what the possible exposures are, removing bodychecking isn’t going to provide a significant degree of safety when you already have all those other potential exposures in the game.

“We’re splitting hairs here. What are you going to do? Remove a scrum in the corner? Remove faceoffs? You’re either playing or you’re not playing. There are other higher-yield eras to focus on which would be preventing players from getting infected in the first place.”

The higher-yield areas, Dr. Bogosh explains, include the bench, the dressing room, transportation to and from games and even all the hours players spend away from the rink. And Public Health Ontario agrees with that. It wants to ensure players are distanced on the benches and wants to find any other incremental ways to reduce prolonged close contact during games. It’s simply further out on a limb than most when it comes to bodychecking specifically because it believes, mathematically, eliminating any tangible risk is a good thing.

Whether the bodychecking ban will actually achieve the goal of keeping the OHL season alive, however, remains to be seen. The players may want to practice holding their breath during faceoffs.

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