How the NHL Has Conquered COVID (At Least to This Point)

The league vowed it would make the safety of its players its top priority and some people scoffed. But not only has the NHL successfully pulled off the Stanley Cup tournament, it's keeping everyone safe.
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When he was told that the NHL had conducted almost 20,000 COVID tests since entering the playoff bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton more than three weeks ago, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper made light of the situation, because that is what he does. “There are only 20,000?” Cooper asked. “I feel like I’ve taken 19,000 of them.”

It was hyperbole, of course, but Cooper’s words are emblematic of how well things have gone for the NHL from a health perspective. And it has been remarkable. From the time more than 1,200 players and team personnel hunkered down into the bubbles July 27 through last Saturday, the league had conducted a total of 19,898 COVID tests – 7,013 the first week, 7,245 the second week and 5,640 the third week – without a single positive test. Not one. That, ladies and gentlemen, represents a huge win for the league. There was no shortage of doubters that the NHL would even be able to pull this off, despite the league’s assurances it would make the players’ health its primary concern, but the fact it has managed to do so without a single positive test so far is largely because of three major factors:

* The fact that the NHL and NHL Players’ Association worked in tandem to prepare for the tournament, were on the same page every step of the way and prepared so diligently for every possible scenario.

* The protocols that have been put in place have worked, including assigning a compliance officer to each team to ensure that all protocols are being followed.

* The buy-in from everyone involved, each of the 52-person travelling parties for the 24 teams involved - has been unanimous.

“I don’t know if the word ‘bubble’ has a positive or negative connotation,” Cooper said. “But the staff that have been hired, the people who have been surrounding us, the environment, the hotel…people have gone out of their way to make us feel at home. And that is a big thing, to feel comfortable in your surroundings.”

But not too comfortable. Among the good things the league has done is give all of those in the bubble a very clear set of guidelines with almost no wiggle room. And that helps. Hockey players, by nature, are creatures of habit and they often thrive on very specific instruction. The league has been vigilant about enforcing the guidelines. For example, Colorado Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said that if he walks around the team hotel with his mask off for a couple of minutes, someone will surely come to him and remind him to put it on. The same would happen if groups aren’t practicing proper physical distancing, even while wearing masks. Dallas Stars GM Jim Nill said there are security guards all over the team hotels and if they see someone not following protocols, they’ll call the compliance officer and that person will talk to the offending person.

“It doesn’t surprise me that there have been no positive tests,” Bednar said. “The buy-in from the players, coaches, staff, management, league employees…to just know this is an important time for our league and our fans. If you have that, you have the best chance to succeed.”

When the NHL was in Phase 2 and 3 of the return-to-play, there were some positive tests as players came back to their teams and assembled in their home cities. And the fact that people came in from 24 disparate places that had been hit been hit by different degrees by the pandemic made all of this a challenge. “We’re down in Texas, which was a hot spot,” Nill said. “Florida was a hot spot, Arizona was a hot spot. You’ve got guys flying in from Europe. The players and staffs have done an unbelievable job and they’ve shown incredible discipline. We’ve had no issues. Not once have we had to sit down with the guys and say, ‘Guys, we’ve got to straighten up.’ They’ve bought in from Day 1.”

But the same way the playoffs get more difficult as they go deeper, the challenges will increase. Even though more people leave the bubble as each team gets eliminated, the league will face its next big test in the Eastern and Western Conference finals in Edmonton when players will be allowed to see their families. And as the playoffs go on, bubble fatigue could also become a factor. And staying vigilant will be the key, according to one of the world’s leading infectious disease specialists.

“Until the Stanley Cup is hoisted, I think everyone is holding their breath,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an associate professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto who specializes in infectious diseases and advised the NHLPA on return-to-play protocol. “While there have been very positive results to date, this isn’t over yet. I feel like I’m still walking on egg shells until the Cup is hoisted.”

Choosing hub cities in lower burden areas has been a huge factor, although Edmonton was put on Health Alberta’s watch category on Tuesday for having a rate of more than 50 active cases per 100,000 people. Edmonton has 56 cases per 100,000 people, while Toronto has only 8.93 per 100,000. But can you imagine if the league had chosen frontrunner Las Vegas as a hub city? The temptation to lead the bubble, combined with the fact that the pandemic has hit Vegas hard, had the potential to be a disaster. On Monday, Las Vegas reported 942 new cases, up 550 from the day before.

Bogoch also spoke of something called ‘the prevention paradox’. When things go as well as they have for the NHL, there’s the notion that perhaps it went too far and did too much. And the league would be thrilled to be accused of that. “I’m not sure if this is overdoing it or just strictly adhering to high standards of care and prevention,” Bogoch said. “I don’t think it’s overdoing it. It’s working and it’s working because the league and the players’ association collectively bought into a very safe approach to play hockey. But I can’t say this enough. It’s not over yet and there’s no room for complacency. These bubbles still have pores, they’re not huge, but they still have pores. There’s still a small, but real possibility for people to introduce infection. It’s not a perfectly sealed bubble, but it’s pretty close.”

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