By all accounts, it was a pretty normal game in Mississauga. The OHL's Steelheads were hosting the Saginaw Spirit in a midday affair that saw a large amount of NHL scouts take in the proceedings. The backdrop to everything these days, however, is how the Coronavirus outbreak is affecting the world.
For hockey, that means the cancellation of events and for scouts, the upcoming world under-18s in Michigan is foremost on their minds. While the IIHF hasn't shut down the tourney yet, it has cancelled under-18 events at the lower levels and at this point, scouts are waiting for the other shoe to drop. As for the players themselves, they're taking their cues from the junior teams they play for.
"We've had a few talks and we just got some new hand sanitizers in our room," said Mississauga left winger James Hardie. "We're making sure we always wash our hands so we don't get sick."
Washing hands is of course the key to staying healthy and in the sweaty environs of hockey, it's important to remain militant. Coronavirus isn't the first illness that teams have needed to worry about, after all.
"It's more of a reminder," said Bob Tory, GM and ownership partner of the WHL's Tri-City Americans. "Think back to the Tim Bozon meningitis case (in 2014) and before that there was a MRSA scare. Quite a few years ago our team bought a hospital-grade ionizer that we use quite frequently and our training staff does a great job sanitizing the dressing rooms and the weight room every day. We've got a dishwasher right in our dressing room for water bottles and protein shakers."
Junior hockey used to be a haven for mononucleosis, though Tory can't remember the last time he heard of that disease affecting someone. Not sharing water bottles really helped in that regard and these days players all have their own bottles or protein shakers, so it's not as much of an issue.
Tri-City is located in Washington state, where Coronavirus cases have been some of the most frequent in the United States, though Kennewick, where the Americans play, is far away from those hot spots. Also, the concentration has been in nursing homes for the elderly. Nonetheless, Tory noted that the Toyota Center, their home rink, was adding more hand sanitizers in both the restrooms and around the rink.
In the Midwest, the USHL's Dubuque Fighting Saints are using their contacts in Europe to gather intel on best practices. According to GM Kalle Larsson, they've spoken with coaches from Switzerland's NLA and Sweden's SHL about preventing the spread of the virus. They've also shared articles with players and kept in close contact with doctors in town.
This is all on top of the team's regular practices when it comes to health.
"We always have a fairly rigorous system in place regarding injuries and sickness," Larsson said. "We use what we call a 'flu chart,' with symptoms reporting, hand-washing protocol and a weekly step-by-step procedure for how to deep-clean and sanitize the dressing room and player equipment."
Similarly, in Tri-City, the Americans make sure that one sick player doesn't create a domino effect.
"If they're feeling ill, they stay home and then we bring them in and have the doctor look at them when there isn't a bunch of guys around," Tory said. "We encourage them to wash their hands more frequently and use the mouthwash provided."
The situation is harder on the road, of course. Though Tory noted that most other WHL teams are set up quite well in their arenas, travel means you're always at the mercy of close quarters - whether it's in a hotel or on a long bus trip. If a player gets sick on the road, the protocol is to isolate them in a room by themselves so the sickness doesn't spread.
While there haven't been any reported cases of Coronavirus in the junior or pro ranks yet, it would be naive to think the hockey world exists in a bubble. For those who are in charge of teenagers, that responsibility is not taken lightly these days.
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