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What we know right now about the NHL and COVID-19

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Back in July, I wrote a piece about the intersection between sports, hygiene and COVID-19. Much of it remains relevant, such as how frequent testing, face coverings and deep cleaning of high-trafficked areas can reduce the risk of infection. Some of it is very “writing about COVID-19 a few months into the U.S. outbreak,” which is to say that former pitcher Huston Street was correct that they would not end up “policing a sneeze” in Major League Baseball.

(Especially during a championship celebration, it turns out …)

Months later, we clearly don’t know enough about COVID-19 in aggregate, but professional sports leagues have learned plenty, using various methodologies to start, restart and complete their seasons.

“At this point, we know how the virus is transmitted. We know how to create safe environments to prevent transmission. We know how to deploy diagnostic testing to rapidly identify positive individuals. We have better treatments, and there’s a vaccine pipeline that is robust,” Dr. Isaac Bogoch told me last week.

I’ve spoken to Bogoch on a couple of occasions during the pandemic. He’s an infectious diseases physician and scientist with the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute, who has consulted with both the NHL and Major League Soccer players’ associations in helping them develop “return to play” protocols for COVID-19. He also has a charming, clinical ability to tell it like it is, which I appreciate.

We reconnected because I wanted to gauge his confidence in the 2020-21 NHL season actually happening.

“It’s high,” he said. “In addition to what we have now, there’s a lot of positive changes that are likely to happen between now and the end of a hockey season. I think we’re in good shape.”

Given the current rate of infections, a positive outlook from an infectious disease expert might feel a little jarring. But Bogoch explained his outlook, at least when it comes to hockey.


What have we learned about COVID-19 and the NHL since March?

Bogoch states the obvious: Getting people together in an indoor environment, without proper safety measures, can amplify the infection in those settings. However, he said that “we know how to pretty much prevent that” through everything from masks to increased air circulation to social distancing guidelines.

What we’ve learned much more about is how people are less likely to get infected by COVID-19. Remember scrubbing every inch of your home with some janky sanitizer made by your local distillery? Bogoch joins other epidemiologists in reconsidering COVID-19 transmission through touching of surfaces.

“Yes, we have to wipe down high-contact surfaces. But the extent to which transmission is from direct contact [with surfaces] is much less risky than was initially thought. It’s much more of an airborne person-to-person type infection than it is this,” Bogoch said. “We just have a better understanding of what the circumstances are for this virus to be transmitted, and what we can do to really protect people from that.”

When it comes to cleaning these surfaces, the common phrase for epidemiologists is “hygiene theater,” i.e. going overboard with the spraying and the disinfecting, sometimes for show.

When the NHL comes back, it will no doubt return with a bit of that “hygiene theater” inside dressing rooms and arenas. But the emphasis, Bogoch said, should be less about transmission inside the arena than preventing COVID-19 from hitching a ride into the building in the first place.

“That’s stating the obvious, but you don’t want to let it get in because there’s just a lot of opportunities for it to be transmitted. Once it gets in, the areas that are most likely to be transmitted are the areas that really involve close proximity for a prolonged period of time. So the locker room is a clear risk area in addition to the bench as well. You’ve got players exercising, they’re huffing and puffing, and there’s just the potential of someone who is infected to transmit more readily because of the huffing and puffing that goes on with exercise,” he said.

What’s the status of testing?

Bogoch believes that “the role of diagnostic testing and frequent screening” remains vital, especially with the daily frequency the NHL used in the bubbles. Currently, the most common rapid testing involves a nasal, nasopharyngeal or oral swab, which is sent to a lab for a PCR test. Bogoch believes the perfect situation would be akin to a “pregnancy test” for COVID, where a quick test of saliva would produce an instant “yes or no” result.

Do we have the technology to produce the fast, accurate tests we would need in this scenario? “No, not really, not yet. But I don’t think it’s too far off,” he said.

That’s why he believes a key to the 2020-21 season is for the NHL to be nimble as possible. There will be diagnostic tests that are “faster and easier to deploy.” Then there’s what Bogoch calls the elephant in the room: widespread rollout of a vaccine, which “might happen sooner rather than later, depending on where you live and who gets access to it and at what time.”

Once that happens, Bogoch expects to see “shifting policy” from states and provinces on issues such as border travel — “quite frankly I don’t see the border restrictions changing any time in the near future,” he said, candidly — and especially on public gatherings.

The nimble approach of the NHL should extend from changes in treatment and local restrictions to where the games are played to how the schedule allows for postponements.

“I think when the NHL and other professional sports leagues are putting together their plans, they should be able to roll with the punches as these changes occur,” he said.

Can the NHL pull off the “hub cities”?

In reporting our story about the NHL’s plans for 2020-21, almost everyone we talked to echoed the same objective: To play games in front of fans next season. Some teams want to do so from the start, but the most likely scenario has the NHL starting in “hub cities.”

The plan, still in its nascent stages, would have three regional “bubbles” in U.S. locations and one in Canada, which would feature an all-Canadian division due to the border issue. These would be “hybrid bubbles,” with teams permitted to leave to spend time back home during certain weeks. It would be a temporary setup until, hopefully, teams can return to their home arenas later in the season.

Bogoch believes that this plan can be carried out safely with rigorous testing of everyone re-entering the hub, and further testing once they’re back inside the hub. But he believes the real key is how responsible those who leave the bubble are when they are back home.

“You have to drive behavioral change rather than be able to rapidly identify cases,” he said.

Bogoch pointed to Phase 3 of the NHL’s return-to-play plan last summer, when players were training in practice facilities with safety protocols, but were on their own otherwise.

“While you can create a safe rink environment, what’s important is what are these guys doing in the other 18 hours of the day. We needed tremendous buy-in from the players and from anyone else,” he said.

Can fans return safely?

Without question, a Stanley Cup Playoff tournament played in front of some limited capacity of fans is of paramount importance — and given how other professional leagues have operated, albeit in open-air stadia, it seems inevitable for hockey.

But when I asked Bogoch about bringing fans back to NHL games, he said, “I’d be very careful about that in the pre-vaccine era.”

“When vaccines are rolled out, I think that it’s a no-brainer: If the vaccines are successful in preventing people from getting sick, or are successful in mitigating the severity of illness, and life is sliding towards a return to normalcy, yeah, that’s a great opportunity to start scaling back fans in the stands. I don’t think that’s outlandish. I think that’s going to happen in 2021. It’s probably going to happen at some point throughout the season,” Bogoch said.

That’s an ideal timeline, but not a friendly one for teams that want to start seating fans ASAP. If the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are seating fans for home games — and are allowed to do so, per local regulations — then the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning are likely to do the same, vaccine or no vaccine. But I agree with Bogoch: These are indoor environments, and hence fans might be a little more hesitant to attend hockey games than football games in an open-air stadium.

Can the NHL convince fans to return, when they’re able to?

This brings us back to the “hygiene theater” concept. What steps do arenas have to take to be safe vs. making people feel safe enough to return?

“OK, I love that question so much. There’s the science and then there is what’s actually done. The science is basically wash your hands and wipe off high-contact surfaces. But really the main focus should be on putting on a mask in an indoor environment, avoiding crowded indoor settings and really separating by six feet. That’s the science,” Bogoch said.

“The same is true for temperature checks. Like, we know that temperature checks do virtually nothing with this infection.”

Wait, what?

“You have to have the right temperature at the right place at the right time detected with the right device. For starters, there’s a lot of things that can cause a fever that aren’t COVID-19. We know that even if people have COVID-19 who are having fevers, they can be intermittent. We know that many people with COVID-19 won’t have a fever period. They might feel unwell, but they might not have a fever, so setting up a temperature check is not a very successful check,” Bogoch said.

(As I said, the doctor keeps it real.)

Despite his feelings on heat checks, Bogoch said they help with the optics for businesses. “It shows that you’re taking the health and well-being of people entering your building in a serious manner,” he continued. “People sort of look at hygiene theater and laugh and poke fun. But I really think it serves a purpose as well. As long as they’re still adhering to avoiding crowded settings, mask wearing and physical distancing, then hygiene theater your face off. Because it might give people the confidence to, when the time is right, go out to a hockey game.”

So, when is the right time to go out to a hockey game?

The right time to go back to a hockey game is, in the end, a personal choice, but it’s naïve to think the option isn’t going to present itself in the 2020-21 season when local regulations seem to be easing, and teams are ravenous for any kind of revenue in what’s expected to be another challenging fiscal campaign. By playoff time, arenas are scheduled to have spectators back in the building for everything from “Freestyle Explosion” (featuring Montell Jordan!) to Justin Bieber’s world tour. (Per usual: As Bieber goes, so goes the NHL.)

The NHL and the NHLPA admit the new season is a different animal than the restarted one. Instead of 24 teams and all the players pulling in the same direction to finish what they started, it’s 31 owners with different access to their revenue streams, and all the players wondering about hub life and prorated provisions on salaries that are already reduced this season. All of these discussions are made in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.

The league and the players have earned a considerable amount of goodwill in playing though the pandemic. We trust them to trust science, and we have to trust that they won’t nudge science out of the way because of the lure of those revenue streams. Because they shouldn’t need to, if they follow the guidance of experts such as Bogoch, who told me:

“Obviously, you could never get overconfident. We have to be humble. We have to clearly be as vigilant as possible. We have to adhere to the highest standards of player safety and public safety and conduct this in an ethical manner. But I really think that it can be done.”


The three most fascinating RFA cap crunches

1. New York Islanders. The Islanders signed defenseman Ryan Pulock on Wednesday (two years, $5 million in average annual value) and now have just over $3.9 million in cap space with Mathew Barzal left to sign; his deal is not going to be for $3.9 million against the cap. There are also “outstanding, agreed-upon deals for Matt Martin and Andy Greeneaccording to Arthur Staple of The Athletic. Barzal is going to get between $7 million and $8 million in AAV no matter the term. Normally this would concern me, but Lou Lamoriello is the Islanders’ general manager, which means he probably gets a special dispensation from the NHL to bury the cap hits of Johnny Boychuk, Thomas Hickey, Leo Komarov and Andrew Ladd in a colony on Mars.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning still need to sign center Anthony Cirelli and defensemen Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak. They have just over $2.895 million in cap space. Depending on the term, those three players could cost them around $12 million against the cap. “Operation: Remove Tyler Johnson‘s Cap Hit” has yet to pay off, but even then, that’s only $5 million in savings. So it could end up that forward Cedric Paquette ($1.65 million) and defenseman Braydon Coburn ($1.7 million), who has a no-trade clause, get shipped out too. Selling high on center Yanni Gourde ($5,166,666) would be smart, but he also has a no-trade clause.

3. St. Louis Blues. The Blues currently have Colton Parayko, Justin Faulk, Torey Krug, Marco Scandella, Carl Gunnarsson and Robert Bortuzzo under contract. Vince Dunn does not have a contract, and is a restricted free agent. The Blues are over the salary cap, but they’re going to be able to open the season with Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen on long-term injured reserve. So they’ll be able to get Dunn in and then figure it out later. But seriously: With Krug and Scandella on the back end, it’s probably back to the third pairing for Dunn. To that we say: FREE VINCE DUNN! Let him spread his puck-moving wings on someone else’s blue line!


Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Steve Yzerman

He got Anthony Mantha done for four years and $5.7 million AAV, on a back-loaded contract ($13 million in the last two seasons) and with no trade protection. So the Detroit Red Wings GM secured a good player at a solid cap number, and has the flexibility to move him in his prime. And that’s why he’s Steve Yzerman.

Loser: Todd Bertuzzi

The former NHL player gets the Room Rater treatment after telling a Vancouver radio station that he’d leave the U.S. depending on the results of the election. “Mini-vanish” is savage.

Winner: Dallas Stars jerseys

We didn’t have a column last week, so allow me this moment to heap even more praise on these new Stars jerseys. Sure, the color scheme is a little Ecto Cooler, but if we’re going to get (another) black jersey, at least Dallas had the good sense to do something audacious. That logo is straight fire and should immediately be adopted as the Stars’ primary one.

Loser: Lake Louise

Alas, the NHL will not be holding a “Mystery, Alaska”-like outdoor game on the Alberta lake, because the parks service frowns upon the infrastructure and sponsorship signage necessary for the NHL to pull off the season-opening outdoor game. Might we suggest Minnesota? There are lakes! Thousands of them!

Winner: Legacies of Travis Roy and Joey Moss

The hockey world recently mourned the deaths of two individuals who made such an impact on the lives of others.

Joey Moss, 57, was a longtime locker room attendant for the Edmonton Oilers, brought on by Wayne Gretzky himself in 1984-85 when Gretzky was dating Moss’ sister. Moss also performed “O Canada” on a number of occasions. Moss had Down syndrome, and was an inspiration to countless people around the Oilers while also the namesake of Joey’s Home Trust, which was run by the Winnifred Stewart Association. A memorial fund in his name has raised close to $44,000. Wrote Kurt Leavins: “Joey embodied so much of what is good about this imperfect franchise: Hard work, determination, passion, loyalty and consistency. As media and as fans we saw those things in him and instinctively knew that so much of what Joey possessed was what the club needed more of.”

Travis Roy, 45, was paralyzed in 1995 after he slid headfirst into the boards just 11 seconds into his first shift for Boston University. He cracked his fourth vertebra, which left him a quadriplegic. He dedicated his life, through the Travis Roy Foundation, to helping spinal cord injury survivors live more independent lives through adaptive equipment grants and funding scientific research. Roy died in Vermont due to complications from a procedure he needed to maintain his quality of life. Do yourself a favor and read “Where golf, God and hockey meet” by my friend John Buccigross.

Loser: Hall of Fame nerds

COVID-19 has claimed the Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2021, as the Hall will induct the Class of 2020 during induction weekend on Nov. 15, 2021. (As if Doug Wilson and Kevin Lowe haven’t waited long enough.) Alas, we’ll have to wait for all the debate fun of Daniel and Henrik Sedin‘s first-year candidacy, which — for the record — should result in them being on the same plaque and inducted as one singular entity.


Puck headlines

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

Read Emily Kaplan’s piece on 15-year-old Morgan Urso, whose story “illustrates that there are still ways to destigmatize mental illness, especially at grassroots levels, where there’s largely a lack of attention and accountability.”

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