Recent COVID-19 outbreaks on two Canadian NHL teams are concerning but should not come as a surprise, says a medical expert.
On Saturday, the NHL announced seven additional members of the Vancouver Canucks were added to the league's COVID-19 protocol list, bringing the total number to 14. The Canucks already had four of their games postponed. Vancouver also has an unnamed coach under COVID protocols.
In late March, two members of the Montreal Canadiens were placed on the COVID protocol list and the team had four games postponed.
"You have to look at the cities they're in," said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease physician for St. Joseph's Healthcare in Hamilton, Ont. "Vancouver has a higher burden [of cases] than many other places in Canada. They just locked down the province because things are getting out of control.
"Montreal is not as bad as some of the other places, but still getting higher rates."
Last week the B.C. government announced a three-week "circuit breaker" lockdown, resulting in sweeping restrictions on indoor dining in restaurants, group fitness and worship services.
Vancouver forward Adam Gaudette and defenceman Travis Hamonic tested positive for COVID-19 early last week. Since then defencemen Alex Edler, Tyler Myers and Quinn Hughes; forwards Zack MacEwen, Bo Horvat, Tyler Motte, Travis Body, Jayce Hawryluk, Brandon Sutter and Antoine Roussel; plus goaltenders Braden Holtby and Thatcher Demko have been added to the list.
A player under COVID-19 protocols has not necessarily tested positive for the virus.
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Chagla said rising COVID cases in the general community increases the odds for a case sneaking through the NHL's protective protocols. With some of the new variants, a player could be spreading the virus even before beginning to show symptoms.
"You really do have to get serious testing to really identify people right away," said Chagla. "Even when you do identify them, it's 24 or 48 hours later."
The close proximity of a hockey environment allows for quick spreading.
"They're in close contact, they're sitting beside each other on the bench, they're in contact in scrimmage, they're training together," said Chagla. "They're so many different high risk encounters."
At one point in February, of the 35 games the NHL had postponed due to COVID, none had involved Canadian teams.
U.S. seeing growth in herd immunity
Since March 20, of the 10 games postponed due to COVD, only two involved U.S.-based teams.
As of Friday, of the 13 players on the NHL's COVID-19 protocol list, only four played on American teams.
Chagla attributes the drop in numbers to more people in the U.S. receiving vaccines and a growth in herd immunity.
"They are definitely seeing a rise in cases, but it's not been as abrupt as Canada," he said. "There's still some vulnerabilities but that infection pressure is a whole lot less."
David Legg, a professor of sports management at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said the COVID cases affecting NHL teams should serve as a wakeup call to all Canadians.
"Maybe it's hubris on our part, because we were mocking the Americans for so long," he said. "Now it's our teams that are getting tested positive.
"We still perhaps need to be careful and the light is maybe not as close as we had thought to the end of the tunnels as we're hoping for."
The NHL has not said if more Canuck games will be postponed. Currently, Vancouver's next game is scheduled for April 8 with no practices before April 6. Heading into Saturday night the Canucks sat six points out of the final playoff spot in the NHL's North Division with 19 games remaining.
Make-up games extend regular season
Postponing games will mean revamping the NHL's already shortened 56-game schedule, said Legg.
"They don't really have to stress about arena availability because it's really just the primary tenants that are using the facilities at the moment," he said. "It's not like they're going to have to bump out a bunch of concerts or other events."
Both the NFL and NBA were forced to reschedule games due to COVID. Major League Baseball's opening day match Thursday between the New York Mets and Washington Nationals was also postponed.
The NHL season was originally scheduled to end May 8. The NHL built in a week window to reschedule games if necessary and already games are planned up to May 11.
"Maybe they'll just have to push it back further then they would have originally wanted," said Legg. "Or they just could cut back games in hand of other teams.
"I don' know if that hurts the NHL because I don't think they have necessarily figured out the playoff system yet."
Legg doubts the challenges the NHL faced this season will leave an asterisk beside who ever wins the Stanley Cup.
"In some respects, you could probably argue the opposite and that it was a more arduous and difficult task because they had to deal with all these extraneous factors."