The NHL moves north for its restart, shifting to Canada as U.S. struggles with pandemic

Samantha Pell, The Washington Post: July 11, 2020


As the NHL tries to resume play and crown a Stanley Cup champion by early October, it is also shifting its operations to Canada. According to a pair of health experts, that might give the NHL the best shot among the North American professional sports leagues to complete the season.

“I don’t know what greater indictment you need of the United States’ response to the virus than the NHL picking up its puck and retreating to Canada,” said Zach Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University. “That was a smart decision. That was a very smart decision.”

The NHL is unique in its plan to resume play, with its 24-team setup to be staged in two hub cities. The 12 participating Eastern Conference teams will play in Toronto, and the 12 participating Western Conference teams will compete in Edmonton, where the conference finals and Stanley Cup finals will also take place.

As of Friday, Toronto had reported 14,777 confirmed cases with 1,117 deaths since the novel coronavirus pandemic began; Edmonton had reported 1,202 cases and 19 deaths. Canada as a whole had reported 106,882 cases and 8,748 deaths.

“In both cities the trends are still low, and they are low, very low, compared to the U.S.,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the nonprofit think tank National Center for Health Research. Zuckerman also pointed out that Toronto has a mask requirement for indoor public spaces.

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The daily coronavirus death toll in the United States increased this week after months of decline. Other sports have announced their return-to-play plans but have already hit roadblocks.

MLS was the first large-scale U.S. team sport to resume since the pandemic began, but it is down two teams at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex outside Orlando after FC Dallas and Nashville SC were forced to withdraw because of virus outbreaks. At the same location, the NBA is in the early phases of restarting its season July 30 with 22 teams, and players and staff members cannot enter or reenter the league’s bubble without isolating.

Major League Baseball, which is trying to play a 60-game season starting July 23, has grappled with testing issues as multiple teams closed workouts after delays in getting back results. MLB also has a much looser plan than other sports, which includes air travel between cities, and does not have specific rules once players, coaches and staffers leave team facilities.

There are a number of safety precautions in place for those involved in the NHL’s effort. When teams reach their hub city, the league will test everyone deemed “club personnel” daily. Players, coaches and staffers will undergo daily temperature checks and symptom screening. The league also will test people who might have direct or indirect contact with teams — such as hotel workers — each day.

A player must self-isolate if he tests positive. For a player who is asymptomatic, there are two ways out of isolation: He must test negative or spend 10 days in isolation. If he is still asymptomatic then, he can return to the ice. A player who is symptomatic faces different standards: He must test negative twice or not show symptoms for more than 72 hours after an isolation of at least 10 days.

“Daily testing might seem excessive, but as far as I can tell, it does no harm,” Zuckerman said.

Zuckerman added that daily testing is only as good as the accuracy of the tests and the speed at which results are provided. The NHL is working with companies in each hub city in the hopes of ensuring the testing process goes smoothly.

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Binney said he would like to see the NHL have a longer period of isolation once teams arrive in the hub cities. But some time in isolation — along with daily testing for more than just players and coaches — provides a “better than nothing” approach.

“It is kind of the minimum,” Zuckerman added.

Binney said the NHL plans to do three things that are important to bringing any sport back during the pandemic: First, it is centralizing its teams and sequestering them. Next, it plans frequent daily testing for a range of people. Finally, it is not trying to play in the United States.

“Between those three things, yeah, I’m starting to think the NHL probably has the best shot,” he said. “But my major concern is going to be getting everybody in [the hub cities] uninfected.”

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