A recent COVID-19 breakout across the NHL has forced the league to implement stricter policies through Jan. 7 that are reminiscent of last season.
The Calgary Flames, who are currently scheduled to host the Seattle Kraken next Thursday, added 16 names to their COVID protocol list on Wednesday to elevate that number overall to 27. Nashville added six players and staffers, Florida added six players, and Carolina currently has two players and a staff member stuck and quarantining in Canada as of this writing.
More than 30 players have entered protocol since Monday for the largest outbreak of the season, and presence of the Omicron variant has been confirmed, all ahead of the players needing to make a decision if they’ll participate in the Beijing Olympics in February, which is starting to appear doubtful.
Every player in the NHL is vaccinated other than one — Tyler Bertuzzi on the Detroit Red Wings — but COVID has taken off across the league. The Kraken currently have three players — Riley Sheahan, Colin Blackwell, and Yanni Gourde — in protocol along with two staffers and assistant coach Jay Leach.
Despite the outbreak, very few players and staff have suffered adverse effects from the disease.
“Breakthrough cases are happening all over the place. So that’s a non-unique phenomenon to hockey, there are some other things that may be unique to hockey,” said Janet Baseman, associate dean for public health practice at the University of Washington. “But breakthrough cases are happening in every environment. We knew all along that the vaccines were not perfect at preventing infection. So people are testing positive, even though they’re fully vaccinated. The thing that the vaccines are really incredible at is keeping people out of the hospital, keeping people from dying.”
Calgary postponed four games and Carolina didn’t play in Minnesota on Tuesday — though they are still scheduled to face Detroit Thursday, as of this writing — as the league grapples with how to proceed. Ontario announced on Wednesday all arenas with 1,000-plus capacities would have a 50% limit, which includes Senators and Maple Leafs games.
Despite the strong vaccination status across the NHL, ice rinks are one of the worst environments for COVID to fester in sports, leading to higher percentages of viral loads lasting for a longer period of time, experts say.
“Ice rinks are really interesting when it comes to ventilation and air flow,” said Krystal Pollitt, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Yale University who wrote a paper last year about the effects of ice rinks on spreading COVID. “We assume just because there are these really big indoor spaces that with a lot of cool air that’s being blown through that it must have really good ventilation, and air exchange. But that’s really not the case because you have these microclimate effects within the rink area, because you have this cooling that happens at the ice and then these barricades around the ice and you have this inversion effect to air becoming stagnant and effectively create a box over the sort of the surface of the ice rink.”
Some players have taken booster shots, though unlike the NFL and NBA, the league hasn’t mandated that step yet but is encouraging players. Players haven’t had to wear masks in locker rooms and all unvaccinated players haven’t had any limitations of what they could do on the road.
That’s changing now, but outbreaks could be occurring on the ice itself.
“Micro-dynamics of the airflow within ice rinks just really doesn’t make it well ventilated at all,” said Pollitt. “You have this box effectively that traps all of the air within the ice rink. So everyone that’s on the ice, they’re just breathing that same amount of air when you have a lot of players on the rink like you would in a hockey game. And also just the rate at which they’re breathing very heavily. That’s just going to release a lot more droplets that could spread transmission to other teammates.”
A study cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from David Atrubin, a former hockey player who now works in the Florida Department of Health State Public Health Agency, from last October also outlined how quickly COVID spreads in a hockey space.
“The indoor space and close contact between players during a hockey game increase infection risk for players and create potential for a superspreader event, especially with ongoing community COVID-19 transmission,” that study reads.
Pollitt said adding additional fans to help ventilation could increase airflow, but that theory hasn’t been tested. Aside from that, she encouraged additional testing and ensuring positive players aren’t on the ice where infection could spread.
Calgary’s recent outbreak seems to have a direct correlation to the players infected in Boston, who played the Flames last week, and on Tuesday placed two players in protocol and then Wednesday, the day after hosting Vegas, added another player to that list. So there’s a direct correlation of teams spreading to each other.
It’s causing frustration among players who are seeing their season be disrupted despite following all protocols.
“It’s happening all over, you look at all the leagues,” Lightning forward Steven Stamkos told reporters on Wednesday. “For whatever reason, right now, I don’t know if it’s the variant or what, but the good thing is no one is getting sick. So things are working in that regard. Maybe it’s time to finesse some things, make sure we can keep chugging along. It’s been a long road of how this COVID has played out.”
NHL protocols will likely continue to adapt and a decision will have to be made on the viability of players going to the Olympics, but for now, the environment in which hockey happens is itself something to combat. Whenever there is a potential spread, the NHL is always going to have to deal with the effects.
“It’s a winter sport, so we’re seeing indoor sports activity during winter months, we’re in the middle of a surge and we know that whenever there’s community level transmission, that is increasing, the cases are increasing in any sub environment,” said Baseman.
How the schedule adapts from here for the Kraken and the rest of the league remains to be seen.