The Minnesota Wild returned to practice yesterday for its Non-COVID-19 listed athletes for the first time since the team activities were paused last week. What can the NHL learn from this outbreak?
Before diving into how the NHL needs to improve the protocol to handling COVID-19, let’s discuss the timeline that culminated in the Minnesota Wild team activities being put on pause.
One disclaimer before diving into this: This isn’t to assess blame, point fingers, or be mad at a team/player/etc for causing this. This is simply to look at the facts as to what happened that led up to this outbreak
On January 28th, Los Angeles Kings’ forward Andreas Athanasiou was placed on the COVID-19 protocol list, which doesn’t necessarily mean he tested positive for COVID-19. The NHL stated in a press release at the beginning of the season that a player would go on the COVID-19 Protocol List if:
- An initial positive test, which remains unconfirmed until confirmatory testing is completed
- Mandated isolation for symptomatic individuals
- Required quarantine as a high-risk close contact
- Isolation based on a confirmed positive test result and/or;
- Quarantine for travel or other reasons.
So for instance, Patrik Laine, Jack Roslovic, and Pierre-Luc Dubois were all on the COVID-19 Protocol list because they crossed the North Border and had to serve a mandatory quarantine for travel.
Now, it’s unknown why Athanasiou was placed on the COVID-19 protocol list, but it has to be noted this is was while the Kings were in Minnesota for their two games against the Minnesota Wild, and he played in the first game on January 26th.
So, Athanasiou plays the 26th, then is placed on the list on the 28th.
Fast forward to January 31st, the first Minnesota Wild player from the opening night roster had been put on the COVID-19 protocol list, Marcus Foligno. The day before, the Minnesota Wild had just played the Colorado Avalanche in the first of what should have been four straight games against the Rocky Mountain Rival.
Dean Evason said this at the time about Foligno being put on the COVID-19 Protocol List (via The Athletic, subscription required)
"“You’re trying to do all the right things,” Evason said. “Sanitize, wash, masks, all the right things. And there’s people that sometimes get it. It happens. We’ll support Marcus, and believe me, he’s done the right things. I talked to him this afternoon. He has no idea (how he got it), as I’m sure a lot of people (don’t). But we’ll go through the protocol, we’ll do what we have to do. We’ll get him healthy, That’s the main thing, clearly. And then get him back to a position where he’ll compete for our hockey club.”"
Foligno was the only player that went on the list though, and the Wild played (and debuted their Reverse Retro jerseys) later that night in the second game against the Avalanche, where they won 4-3.
The team then travels to Denver to play the second half of the four-game series and on February 2nd, lost 2-1.
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Then on February 3rd, reporters like Darren Dreger and Michael Russo begin reporting that about half a dozen players would be put on the COVID-19 list. The Wild would add five players to the list (Nick Bjugstad, Marcus Johansson, Joel Eriksson Ek, Jared Spurgeon, and Nick Bonino) in the daily report made by the NHL.
That same day, the Avalanche added Tyson Jost to the list.
On February 4th, Nico Sturm joined the COVID list from the Wild. Gabriel Landeskog joined the list from the Avalanche. Players/staff who tested negative in Denver flew home on the 4th as well.
February 5th, Ian Cole, who flew back from Denver after testing negative, was placed on the COVID-19 Protocol List. On the 7th, Brad Hunt and the Av’s Sam Girard joined the list. February 8th, Carson Soucy & Victor Rask joined the list, making it 11 players on the list, five of which flew back after testing negative in Denver.
February 9th: Cam Talbot & Jonas Brodin join the list, and interestingly enough, Victor Rask is removed from it. The next day, he was back on it.
February 11th, Russo reported:
After practicing on February 12th, Marcus Foligno in his press availability said:
So, this is the timeline as we understand it. Now we’ll get into more of the protocol based information
Let’s start this talk about the testing the players are frequently getting.
As reported by Michael Russo in his story on The Athletic (subscription required),
"The PCR tests are shipped to a lab in New Jersey, and the results are typically received back between midnight and 7 a.m. the next day. That lag between test and result is especially problematic during a condensed season in which teams are playing basically every other day. If it’s a game day, infected players can conceivably play a game not knowing they’re positive for the virus,"
which is very likely what happened in several cases across the league; Athanasiou and the Wild, Foligno and the Avs, Hurricanes and the Red Wings, Devils and Sabres.
Later in the article, Russo reports that the NHL/NHLPA are working to get more Point-of-Care (POC) Rapid testing implemented so that they can get results back quicker, albeit they are less accurate, especially with asymptomatic players.
My question is, why/how was the league able to restart without the POC testing in the first place? This one day lag on test results in the PCR tests created a very dangerous bullwhip that finally cracked on several teams.
With this one day lag, that means when Athanasiou was placed on the list on the 28th, he actually was tested on the 27th, meaning he almost certainly played with it on the 26th.
The same is true for Foligno, three days after Athanasiou (the 31st, meaning his test was on the 30th), Foligno was placed on the list, and in the Russo tweet above, he even says he didn’t feel great playing the Avs the day prior.
The League and the Players’ Association has already stated it’s working to get more POC rapid tests on-site to get quicker results back. So, they’ve found one of their problem points, and are addressing it.
Another change it is now making is having their positive specimen tests sent to labs to be genetically sequenced, allowing tracking on where the virus and the spreads are coming from. Again, how was this not implemented from the start, especially when the NHL and NHLPA are making claims that they’ve seen zero evidence that transmission has been happening in games?
They haven’t seen any evidence of it because they weren’t previously looking for it!
I can understand the NHL experiencing these issues if they were the first league to experience these issues on trying to return to play in a pandemic. Just look at the MLB last year, teams were decimated by the virus, and if I recall right, at one point the Marlins (who made the postseason) had a roster of near 80% minor leaguers to plug holes. They adjusted and survived.
The NFL and the NBA both returned to their seasons in a more-normal situation and the NHL could and should have learned from the pressure points they experienced. Make meetings virtual, have the genetic sequencing that one NBA doctor said was, “The genetic sequencing of the virus is really, really critical.” Socially distance whenever possible. How were locker rooms barely modified to protect players?
Some partitions between the players, but still pretty on top of one another. I know they just wrapped up a game, but start issuing a policy to wear the mask in the locker room at all times?
(This is another thing the NHL is trying to modify to protect players, creating more space and rearranging the locker room to put players who’ve had it together and those who haven’t together)
The logistics of it would be awkward (having to put a mask on coming off the ice and mask off before you take a shift) but might we see more masks being worn on the bench between shifts?
I think we’ll also see the NHL and NHLPA really begin encouraging/mandating teams and players to limit their exposure points away from the ice, like going out to dinner, etc. The NFL would fine teams who violated protocol, for instance, the Ravens got a $250,000 fine and the Saints got a $500,000 fine and lost a 7th round draft pick.
Even at its most basic Coaches, GMs, Medical staff need to listen to the players who say they aren’t feeling 100%. Players, be more vocal and listen to what your bodies are telling you.
The NHL built the schedule the way they did because if there were positive tests on a team, they would likely be able to contain the issue between a team or two and not have it spread across the entire division.
What they failed to do is give this system the proper backbone to make this plan succeed (POC rapid tests and genetic sequencing) and often refused to make the safe decision to prevent further spread.
Since the Wild outbreak, the NHL has been more cautious and proactive in trying to prevent spread and contain teams that recently placed players on the COVID list. One example was delaying the Oilers-Canadiens game on Thursday one hour to get the test results back for the rest of the Edmonton team after one player was recently put on the COVID list.
They got the results, deemed it safe, and played the game, Edmonton winning 3-0.
With the POC rapid testing, genetically sequencing the positive specimens, and more distance in the locker rooms, the NHL is addressing its pain points when it comes to containing the COVID-19 virus
It was always going to be difficult to return to play in a more normal situation for the NHL. It’s a cold, dry environment. Players are tight on the bench, the staff right behind them. Every faceoff is close contact with the other team, post-whistle scrums, etc, etc.
Still, I have to believe the NHL determined it had to play a season this year. They couldn’t be the only league not to attempt to play a season this year, and the United States TV deal is up at the end of the season, which certainly plays a factor in this whole decision-making process.
Here’s a question I’ve asked myself a couple of times: When do we start seeing Professional Teams get the COVID-19 vaccine? I would bet League offices have certainly asked about it. It protects their assets and themselves from liabilities. I believe the question has been asked.
Leagues had to love hearing Dr. Anthony Fauci claim that:
"“By the time we get to April, that would be what I call for lack of better wording, open season. Namely, virtually everybody and anybody in any category can start to get vaccinated,”"
because it means that they could be close to getting doses themselves to protect their teams, players, owners, etc.
I certainly hope that wasn’t the NHL’s plan, to survive as long as it could until the vaccine was made available to them, but who knows. This league can be a head-scratcher sometimes. It needs to improve its protocols on testing, genetic sequencing, distancing, etc, and begin utilizing the flexibility in the schedule they themselves claimed to implement for situations like this.
It seems that the Minnesota Wild Outbreak is beginning to wind down a bit, some players are coming off the list and they’re scheduled to play this upcoming Tuesday against the LA Kings, probably with a good chunk of Taxi Squad and AHL fill-ins. Hopefully, the NHL has learned and will improve its protocols to prevent future outbreaks.
Most of all, hopefully, zero Wild players (and NHLers in general) experience long-standing effects from the virus, like the Minnesota Wild’s first-round draft pick Marco Rossi has been.
UPDATE: via Michael Russo’s recent mailbag (subscription required) the NHL and NHLPA are introducing a number of new measures:
"Since the Wild outbreak, the league and union have introduced a number of new measures: 1) Rapid POC testing to supplement PCR testing on game days for all 24 U.S. teams; 2) Forensic microbiology of positive tests; 3) Requesting players to solely travel between home and rink as much as possible and for family members to limit activities outside the house; 4) Removing the glass behind the benches and penalty boxes; 5) Mandatory KN95 masks, not other types of masks, sourced by the teams; 6) Virtual team meetings; 7) Reconfiguring or creating new locker room space to allow for social distancing, especially for those who recently tested positive; 8) Investigate adding air purifiers with HEPA filters behind the benches; 9) Limiting time at the rink for players to 1 hour, 45 minutes before the game and requesting players and staff to leave as expeditiously as possible after the game."