“Should a repeat of the bubble model for the NHL not be achievable, we would recommend postponing the start of the season by a few weeks so that disease rates can fall and our health systems can recover,” the letter said.
The health officials – including Alberta’s Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw, BC’s Provincial Health Commissioner Dr. Bonnie Henry, Manitoba’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams, Quebec’s National Director of Public Health Horacio Arruda, and Dr. Howard Njoo, deputy chief public health officer at the Public Health Agency of Canada – also asked for the NHL’s help in getting Canadians on board in preventing the transmission of COVID-19.
“The NHL is well positioned to play a strong role in promoting health and safety measures that are critical to containing the spread of COVID in our provinces. We would be very grateful for the visible guidance that the NHL could offer in the first few months of 2021 at a time when our combined efforts to contain the virus will be critical to sustaining our health systems across the country, ”reads in the letter.
Bettman responded on Dec. 24, saying the league had already included contributions from various Canadian health officials in its logs.
“We do not believe that our return to play plan poses a significant risk to the health and safety of ordinary Canadians,” his letter stated.
Bettman noted that players, staff and coaches were tested on a daily basis, and said the league would “make every effort” to provide families and other close contacts with access to testing if requested. He added that the NHL’s protocols have been updated to include 14 days of testing for close contact with a player if the player tests positive for the virus.
The letter also noted that the NHL had changed its schedule to limit how often a team could travel to or from the province, saying that the addition of a “taxi squad” would limit cross-border travel.
“We think neither a ‘bubble model’ for the start of the season nor a delay of several weeks before the start of the game is feasible; we don’t think it’s necessary either, ”said Bettman. “We believe in our ability to provide a successful return to the game without taking such action by ensuring that appropriate mitigation measures are in place and that our staff strictly adhere to those mitigation measures.”
The commissioner added that the League “enthusiastically embraces” requests from health authorities to encourage Canadians to take steps to curb COVID-19 transmission.
“The league, our clubs and our players will pledge to play a strong and visible role in promoting health and safety measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 in your provinces,” he said.
Health officials sent another joint letter to Bettman on December 25, saying they support the return of the NHL to Canada. The league began its condensed 56-game season on January 13th.
Overall, the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols worked pretty well, said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto.
“I think they had a smart plan,” he said. “The plan wasn’t foolproof and they responded fairly responsibly.”
With so many players and staff involved, it has always been difficult to keep infection rates down, especially because they travel and often live with people at home who are not subject to the same rules, Furness said.
“It’s a perfect storm,” he said. “It just takes a moment of inattention and then boom.”
The NHL released numbers on June 28th showing it had completed more than 350,000 COVID-19 tests during the season, with 119 players receiving “confirmed positive results”.
It would have been difficult to keep the numbers down, said Dr. Brian Conway, director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Center.
Everyone bypassed COVID-19 protocols during the pandemic, he said, and people get a false sense of security if they don’t suffer consequences like illness.
“The rules of the (NHL) seem to have been quite appropriate, they seem to have been applied appropriately. But you have to remember that we are dealing with people, ”said Conway.
The virus forced 12 teams to close and postpone 55 games over the course of the season.
The Vancouver Canucks experienced the league’s worst outbreak in late March when the aggressive p. 1 variant swept through the locker room.
Twenty-one players and four coaching staff tested positive for the virus with many exhibiting symptoms such as extreme fatigue, fever, chills, and shortness of breath. Relatives also fell ill, including wives and children.
Vancouver had postponed several games and did not play for more than three weeks.
The team said an investigation and contact tracing found that the outbreak was triggered by a single unnamed person who picked up the infection in a “community setting” later identified as a “public exposure site”.
The Montreal Canadiens also postponed four games in late March after two players were added to the COVID-19 list.
Interim head coach Dominique Ducharme also had to isolate himself after testing positive for the virus on June 19, Bay Blitz.
A bubble environment like the one demanded by Canadian health officials might have prevented outbreaks this season, but only if everyone involved worked hard to get it, Furness said.
“Bubbling works when the rules are clear,” he said. “Bubbling is smart.”
The epidemiologist said he failed to see the NHL taking up health officials’ demands to be a leader in promoting health and safety efforts around COVID-19.
“You have to do more than just nod your head. You have to put your shoulder in to get the message across and it doesn’t seem to me that you did, ”Furness said.
The league could have done better on moral leadership, he added, by helping to facilitate quick testing during the season or by encouraging the public to vaccinate. Instead of publishing their vaccination rules for players and staff, the NHL could showcase their stars getting their shots, he said.
“Because it’s this young male age group that we have big problems with,” said Furness. “And these guys are role models and they know that they are role models and they know that they have a huge audience.”
Currently, about 23 percent of Canada’s eligible population have not received a COVID-19 vaccination, Conway said, and the NHL could help change that.
“Of those who aren’t vaccinated, four out of five want a vaccine and either find it too difficult, they can’t care, they say, ‘Well, if everyone else is vaccinated, I don’t really need it’ and so on.” he explained. “This group, I think the sports leagues, sports teams and sports stars could help us get these people vaccinated.”
The NHL will also have to work next season to keep COVID-19 at bay, the experts said.
Furness wants the league to roll out rapid tests to prevent the virus from spreading in arenas when fans return.
“It’s still a wild west. We just don’t know how to hold large meetings. Even if we ask for proof of vaccination, it could easily be forged, ”he said. “The best thing you can do at large gatherings is that people are not contagious right now, and rapid tests are really good for that.”
It’s likely that most sporting leagues will be “near normal” again around Labor Day, Conway said, with fans inside buildings and teams traveling.
However, that doesn’t mean the pandemic is over.
“We have to remember that COVID is not gone. This is not the end, it is the end of the beginning. So we have to be very careful, ”said Conway. “Assuming everything goes well, we will reopen, but there will likely still be cases and there needs to be a very clear and reasonable and assertive, if not aggressive, protocol to deal with cases that arise.”
– Follow @gkarstenssmith on Twitter.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on July 9, 2021.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press