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Despite Recent Outbreaks, NHL Season Can Run 'Relatively Smoothly'

Two teams have had outbreaks of COVID-19, leagues have shut down and Canada's World Junior camp has paused, but that doesn't mean the NHL is doomed to fail when it returns.

It should probably come as no surprise that there were going to be some COVID-19 outbreaks as NHL teams began to assemble for informal workouts. And it should come as less of a surprise that the two teams involved were the Columbus Blue Jackets and Vegas Golden Knights. Both cities have been huge hotspots for the virus, with Ohio being hit particularly hard. The state reported almost 11,000 new cases on Wednesday and the death rate is hovering at about 1,000 for November, which is double what the number was in October.

Canada’s World Junior team has been forced to go into isolation for two weeks after two players and two staff members tested positive. The Quebec League has been running in fits and starts all season and the Alberta and Manitoba Jr. Leagues have had to suspend operations. And, of course, the Ontario and Western League seasons haven’t even begun yet. There have been pockets of outbreaks all over the National Football League and it has caused a number of postponements, not to mention uncertainty around whether or not games will be played.

If the NHL ever gets around to coming to a fair agreement with the players over the terms of returning to play, it’s pretty clear that the second wave of the virus is going to be much more challenging for the league to play its season than the first. None of what is happening both in and outside the hockey world should be a shock to anyone. It’s also pretty clear the league is going to have to make contingency plans to manage outbreaks as they happen during the season.

Does this mean it will be impossible for the NHL to return and play? Not if protocols are strictly followed, said one of Canada’s leading infectious disease specialists. Dr. Isaac Bogoch was an advisor to the NHL Players’ Association in the return-to-play that resulted in the league being able to complete the Stanley Cup playoffs and he said the outbreaks don’t necessarily mean the league can’t pull it off again under different circumstances. But there is going to have to be an enormous amount of vigilance. And when the players are at the rink, that’s likely not going to be the problem. It’s when they get out into their communities where they’ll have to be hyper-vigilant.

“There’s a lot of infection in community settings right now in many parts of the United States and globally,” Bogoch said. “And players, just like anyone else, can certainly pick up this infection in community settings. And if people are playing hockey, or congregating in any setting, you can always bring that infection to those other settings and infect other people. The rinks are set up with systems to really ensure that public health measures are adhered to, there’s obviously 20 hours a day where players aren’t in the rinks and it reiterates the point that everyone has got to do their part to fundamentally stick with the public health measures that we know will keep individuals and teams safe.”

The NHL proved during the summer bubble that it will do its part to conduct regular testing and make their venues as safe as is humanly possible for the participants. Judging by the success the league had the first time around, that will not be an issue. And another thing the NHL has for it is that its players are remarkably compliant. They bought into the bubble concept from the start and while it would be a stretch to say everyone embraced it, the players were very much in lockstep with the league. There’s no reason to believe the players would be any different this time around. But they will be around other people who might not be as careful and that’s where the risk enters the equation. And that’s intensified in hockey, an indoor environment where people cannot avoid being in close proximity with one another. The league knows where those places are in the rink and make them as safe as possible. Those who manage this disease always talk about avoiding the Three C’s – close, crowded and confined spaces.

“By really buying into fundamental principles of public health and epidemic management, we can conduct the season relatively smoothly,” Bogoch said. “No matter what, this virus is going to permeate some aspects of our life and with some good planning, we can certainly mitigate that as much as possible.”

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