The walls are closing in, and the NHL knows it. The COVID-19 pandemic seems to ensnare a new team or player every day. The New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres, Colorado Avalanche, Philadelphia Flyers, and Minnesota Wild are locked down at the moment. The Devils have played just nine games this season, while some teams in the North Division have played as many as 16 or 17. The pandemic panic reached a new level earlier this week when, in the middle of a game, the Vegas Golden Knights learned that left winger Tomas Nosek had received a positive test result. They pulled him from the game against the Anaheim Ducks and cancelled post-game media availability.
The potential ramifications of allowing a player awaiting a test result to compete alongside his teammates and have close physical contact with opponents were evidently a tipping point for the NHL. On Wednesday night, the league and the NHL Players’ Association announced a litany of protocol changes in hopes of clamping down the spread and trying to get the schedule back on track.
Here’s a rundown of the announcements, including the word-for-word league explanation of each, coupled with a “Too long, didn’t read” (TL;DR) summary for anyone whose eyes glaze over while reading about COVID-19 protocols.
1. Addition of POC Testing for U.S.-Based Clubs
“In addition to daily, lab-based PCR testing, the League is in the process of providing each U.S. Club with point of care (POC) rapid testing to be administered on game days to all Players and Club personnel (as well as on-ice officials) who work in or around the bench area during games. It is expected that this testing will be in place as early as today for most markets. Although these tests have a slightly lower ability to detect the presence of COVID-19 than lab-based PCR testing, they will provide prompt, same-day results that will reduce the chance of game participation by individuals who might have active infection. If a “testee” tests positive, such individual will be immediately isolated as per the Positive Test Protocol and contact tracing will promptly ensue. The individual will not participate in the game that day.
"The League is currently working directly with the seven Canadian Clubs on the availability of similar or supplemental testing resources.”
TOO LONG, DIDN’T READ: The league is bringing in rapid testing now for anyone playing or working around the bench during games. The same-day results will prevent a Nosek situation from happening again.
2. Work/Home Quarantine
“To reduce the introduction of infection into the team environment, effective immediately, all Players, Coaches, Training Staff, Equipment Staff and other members of each Club’s Travelling Party will be required to remain at home and not leave their place of residence except to attend practices and games, to exercise outdoors on an individual basis, to perform essential activities (e.g., go to the doctor), or to deal with family or other emergencies and other extraordinary circumstances. While Players on many Clubs are already following this approach, it is our hope that requiring this measure across the League will reduce risks from community-based exposures. It is also being strongly recommended that household members (spouses, partners, etc.) limit their discretionary activities outside of the home. Food and grocery delivery services are being recommended to eliminate the need to shop in person, and to thereby reduce interactions with the community. We understand that not all public social interactions can be avoided, such as school-aged children attending school. Other discretionary activities by household members, such as social engagements, however, are to be limited as much as possible.”
TOO LONG, DIDN’T READ: Every team member has to live a COVID-19 lockdown lifestyle like the rest of us while at home. Stay home, don’t socialize, only go outside for exercise and emergencies, consider ordering groceries to your house. This was already recommended; now it’s more official.
3. Reinforcement of Preventative Measures
“The NHLPA and NHL will ensure that their personnel continue taking an active role in Player education of preventative measures with emphasis placed on Players wearing masks at all times when not actively exercising, as well as adherence to distancing requirements.”
TOO LONG, DIDN’T READ: The NHL and NHLPA will keep drilling the importance of masks into players’ heads.
4. Facial Coverings
“To reduce the transmission of infection, it is being strongly recommended that teams source and provide all Group 1 and 2 individuals with KN95 facemasks. Once sufficient quantities can be sourced, Group 1 and 2A individuals will be required to wear KN95 facemasks at all times that facemasks are otherwise required to be worn pursuant to the COVID-19 Protocols. Masks have been shown to be effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19 and, as such, the COVID-19 Protocol requires that facemasks be worn at all times when not exercising, including when Players are in the locker room.
"The fact that masks cannot be worn by Players on the bench does not mean that they should not be worn in the dressing room. The goal of masking is to reduce total exposure. Therefore, any additional time during which face coverings can be used will help reduce risk of disease transmission. Situations such as sitting in the dressing room together pre-game, between periods, and post-game unmasked are more likely to lead to the spread of COVID-19, or possible exposure. Players have been instructed that the use of face masks in the dressing room is therefore important.”
TOO LONG, DIDN’T READ: Outfit the players with the highest-quality masks once enough of them are available. Enforce mask wearing everywhere other than the ice and the bench. Masks on in dressing rooms at all times, including before games and between periods.
5. Early Detection in Household Members
“The NHL and NHLPA are encouraging Clubs to provide more direct education to, and access to regular testing of, family or household members. The goal of this measure is to identify potential sources of Player infection before transmission can occur.”
TOO LONG, DIDN’T READ: Teams need to keep players' and staff members' families in check so the virus doesn’t spread from their homes to the team. Educate family members on COVID, and get ’em tested regularly.
6. Reduced Interaction
“Members of each Club’s Travelling Party are being asked to reduce the amount of time spent in direct interaction with one another, including:
Team Meetings: All team and other meetings will now be required to be conducted virtually, including all coaching meetings and video review sessions. Many Clubs have already transitioned to this model as a matter of standard operating procedure. Given the importance of this intervention, exceptions will not be granted barring extenuating circumstances.
Social Settings: Clubs and Players are being advised that no extended time should be spent sitting together unless all participants are both sufficiently distanced and masked. Additionally, Player lounges in Club hotels are required to be closed no later than midnight."
TOO LONG, DIDN’T READ: All team meetings are now virtual. No exceptions. No extended hangout time unless everyone is masked and socially distanced.
7. Players with Recent Previous Positives – Revised Seating Assignments
"Evidence is emerging that individuals appear to have at least some protective immunity to re-contracting the COVID-19 virus for at least 90 days after their initial infection. By reconfiguring the normal seating arrangements in locker rooms, during team travel, or at meals so that previously infected Players are seated next to individuals who never contracted the virus, the Players with presumptive immunity can be used as a “buffer” for the Players and staff who are unlikely to have such immunity. For example, a Player who tested positive less than 90 days previously should be seated next to a Player who has never had COVID-19, or who has recovered from COVID-19 more than 90 days previously. The League is recommending that this measure should be applied not only to Players, but equally to Coaches and other Club staff as well.”
TOO LONG, DIDN’T READ: Some evidence suggests it’s tough to get COVID-19 again for 90 days after you’ve already had it. Idea: take people who’ve had it within the past 90 days and sit them beside people who’ve never had it in the dressing room, on planes and during meals.
8. Ventilation on the Bench and in the Penalty Box
“In addition to the removal of the plexiglass shielding behind the Player benches, we also have mandated the removal of the shielding from the back of the penalty box area. This will allow increased air flow away from the penalty box area. To facilitate determinations regarding the puck going out of play and to add a safety barrier between any spectators and the Players, each Club/arena is being required to install a mesh or netting barrier behind the Player benches and penalty box areas where the plexiglass shielding previously existed. Prior to such installation, spectators will not be permitted to sit in the section behind the Player benches and/or penalty box.
"In addition, Club/arenas that wish to utilize the sections behind the benches and penalty box for spectator seating will be required to: (1) erect a plexiglass or acrylic barrier in the seating section immediately in front of where spectators will be sitting, which must be at least 25 feet back from the back of the player bench and penalty box areas and no lower than the top of the player vomitories; and (2) install a seat tarp and station security personnel directly behind the penalty box area and in front of the spectators.”
TOO LONG, DIDN’T READ: No more plexiglass behind the benches or penalty box, in hopes of improving ventilation. Mesh barriers go up in their place to keep spectators safe. For teams wanting fans in the good seats behind the bench: new plexiglass barriers in the stands to separate them from the benches.
9. Transmission Investigation and Quarantine
“A pilot project utilizing data from the Player Tracking System has been launched in order to more objectively measure the manner and degree of interaction between Players, and as an enhancement to the contact tracing process. The goal of this project is to more precisely determine which people should be considered for enhanced monitoring and/or quarantine based on close contact with potentially infected Players.”
TOO LONG, DIDN’T READ: Experimental player tracking tech might help shed light on how the players interact, how the virus spreads and who is most at risk from an infected player.
10. Genomic Sequencing
“On a case-by-case basis, and as a response to clustered positives, positive test samples will be analyzed with whole genomic sequencing to determine specific strain types and to estimate pathways of transmission between Players and other members of the Club Travelling Party.
TOO LONG, DIDN’T READ: Samples within clusters/outbreaks will be analyzed to identify specific virus strains and track their paths to spreading between players and other team personnel.