With one offhanded comment on what he thought was a private chat while playing video games, Mitch Marner of the Toronto Maple Leafs summed up the fears so many people have when it comes to navigating the world and returning to work amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “Well, dude, just imagine it,” Marner said in the private video that went public. “What my thought on this is, ‘OK, I’m all down for starting everything back up. Let’s rock.’ But what happens if someone gets sick and dies? What happens? It’s awful to think about, but still.”
Man, that’s a lot to chew on, and it’s something we’re all contemplating when it comes to weighing the benefits of returning to normal against the risk of a second or third wave of the disease. Marner brings up an excellent point. What it essentially comes down to is the players are going to have to trust that the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association, which would have to sign off on any return-to-play plan, are looking out for their best interests. Has the league historically done that when it comes to head trauma? A good number of former players would argue it has not. That’s why they players are going to have to think long and hard before returning to play. And it’s something one of Canada’s leading infectious diseases experts has been saying for some time.
“At the end of the day, if they’re making the decision to play, people have to be well informed of what the risks and what the benefits are,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital. “And it goes beyond the players. This truly is shared and collective decision-making.”
Bogoch has long stressed that every level of government, public health officials, the league and its teams, the players and, perhaps most importantly, the communities holding the hub games are going to have to be on board with the plan and realize the risks it could involve. That being said, Bogoch said the risk for players such as Marner is relatively low. Not zero, but low. Not only are they young, they’re world-class athletes.
“The risk in otherwise healthy people in their 20s and 30s, and maybe a handful of people in their 40s, is extraordinarily low of having a poor outcome,” Bogoch said. “And by poor outcome, I mean the risk of hospitalization, being in an intensive care unit, the risk of death, they’re very low risks in younger individuals. We know that in Canada, about 80 percent of the deaths are in people over the age of 60 and, sadly, a lot of this is driven by those in long-term care facilities. But, in the same breath, rare, bad events can happen. The risk is not zero percent and players have to be aware of that.”
But there are also more than players to consider here. Support staff and management make up a huge part of any team and many of them don’t fall into the younger demographic. There are GMs, coaches and bus drivers, many of whom are in a higher age group and might be more susceptible to contracting the virus than their players. (In fact, I had been told by one hockey executive that team owners won’t be allowed into the buildings, which seems like a stretch. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly responded by saying, “While we haven’t finalized a protocol, I wouldn’t expect we would be excluding any relevant club personnel, and I would certainly put owners in that category. Doesn’t mean they will ever have close contact with the players.” ) “I don’t disagree one bit,” Bogoch said. “Like I said, this is shared decision-making and collective decision-making.”
Marner also brought up Max Domi of the Montreal Canadiens, a Type 1 diabetic with whom Marner played junior hockey. “If he gets it,” Marner said, “he’s in one, like bad.”
Again, though, Bogoch said, even those who have extenuating health issues have to be considered according to their health relative to the rest of the population. Even though there might be players with health issues, the fact that they are young and in top shape will likely be more of a contributing factor. Bogoch used hypertension as an example. “They say hypertension is a risk factor for a sever outcome,” he said. “Well, some people have hypertension and their blood pressure is just a speck above normal and they may be on medication to control, but they’re in otherwise excellent shape. That’s a lot different from someone who has hypertension that has been ongoing and is poorly controlled and has underlying heart disease. Yeah, they both have hypertension, but those are two completely different people.”
In the end, it’s going to come down to measuring risk and reward and proceeding armed with the most reliable data and information available. That’s what everyone is doing and that’s what Mitch Marner and the rest of the NHL are going to have to do before they decide to return to work. The risk is there and it will continue to be there for some time. “One thing I can tell you,” Bogoch said, “is this epidemic isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.”
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