With the revelation that two players had tested positive for Covid-19, Canada's world junior training camp bubble has officially popped. The program's Tuesday intrasquad game was cancelled and all activities suspended as Hockey Canada set about dealing with contact tracing in Red Deer, Alberta.
It's all very distressing, since the first sign of trouble came on the weekend when a "non-core" staffer tested positive, forcing coaches Jason LaBarbera and Michael Dyck to self-isolate after contact with that person.
According to TSN's Ryan Rishaug, everyone in the bubble has been tested three times already and will be tested twice a week, as per protocol. The NHL managed to carry out a 24-team Return to Play tournament and playoffs in two different cities without a single positive test and vigilance from all involved, from the league to healthcare workers to players, made it work. In the NHL bubble, everyone was tested daily. Keep in mind, testing isn't cheap.
Now, the number of Covid cases in the general population of Alberta has gone way up since the Stanley Cup final - there were more than 1,500 new cases on Monday alone and Red Deer itself had 126 - but the fact is, Hockey Canada has to deal with the hand it was dealt.
Nothing about the scenario has been ideal, of course: part of the reason for the extended camp was that players from the OHL and WHL hadn't played at all this season, so there needed to be some baseline to evaluate the kids on. There was also the issue of a handful of NCAA kids coming over the border from the USA.
Due to changing Alberta health protocols, what was supposed to be a short quarantine for Dylan Holloway, Alex Newhook and Devon Levi has turned into a two-week ordeal that deprived all three the chance to play in the initial intrasquad games (in a bit of twisted irony, Levi's Northeastern University just announced the Huskies won't begin their season until Dec. 26 due to positive cases in other school sports).
Another high-profile college prospect, Michigan's Owen Power, didn't even make it to camp. The top 2021 NHL draft prospect was not released by his school for Hockey Canada's early deadline of Nov. 16 - Michigan was hoping he could join later, but that idea was nixed. So far, that controversy has worked out quite well for the Wolverines however, as Power has been a force in Michigan's first four outings, scoring at a point-per-game rate for the undefeated Wolverines.
Other players got to camp late while waiting for test results, while Ottawa Senators first-rounder Ridly Greig had to quarantine before leaving for camp because he tested positive for the virus, though he was non-symptomatic.
Now Hockey Canada must determine how many players were in close contact with the two current positive cases. From what I'm hearing, the kids that tested positive played in the intrasquad games, so that would be most of the roster (I'm not a doctor, but it would seem prudent). And according to protocols, that would mean 14 days of self-isolation, a potential catastrophe for the camp.
Given that the players have basically been going from the rink to the hotel since arriving in Red Deer, it's troublesome that the bubble was popped so quickly - especially since the isolation has not been easy for the campers. But from my understanding, the original case (the "non-core" staffer) could have experienced a false negative test, with the virus only surfacing on a more recent test, once it was too late. What could Hockey Canada do about that, other than quarantine everyone involved for two weeks before anything could happen? That's a huge ask for teenagers, not to mention the adults with family responsibilities.
The larger backdrop here is that Alberta is slated to host the big world junior bubble in Edmonton in less than a month, when teams from the United States and Europe arrive for the real tournament.
Hopefully, organizers can learn from this early setback and adjust accordingly, but it's a very difficult situation and they can only do so much. This is the reality of our times and they will have to determine the best course of action possible.