About 160 kilometres separates Toronto from Buffalo, N.Y., but when it comes to the NHL and COVID-19, the two cities are even farther apart.
The Buffalo Sabres have seen head coach Ralph Krueger and nine players placed on the NHL’s coronavirus protocol list and the team has been forced to reschedule 12 games.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have no players on the protocol list and have had no changes to their schedule.
Krueger, wearing an N95 mask, and defenceman Rasmus Dahlin returned to Buffalo’s practice on Sunday. Forward Taylor Hall was back on the ice Saturday.
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The tale of the two teams is an example of the contrast between what has been happening in the seven-team, all-Canadian North Division and the NHL’s 24 U.S.-based clubs.
As of Sunday, 35 players appeared on the NHL’s COVID-19 list.
The Ottawa Senators were the only Canadian team with a player on the list after acquiring forward Ryan Dzingel Saturday in a trade from the Carolina Hurricanes. Dzingel must quarantine for 14 days before he can play.
Edmonton Oilers forward Jesse Puljujarvi was placed on the list Thursday morning ahead of a game with the Montreal Canadiens, but has since been cleared.
Of the 35 games the NHL has postponed this year, none have involved Canadian teams.
“I think it’s a great natural experiment,” said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease physician for St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton. “You’re running the same league, with the same rules on both sides of the border, and you’re seeing a completely different result.”
Greater community transmission in U.S.
Dr. Jill Weatherhead, an assistant professor in infectious diseases at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, said the blame for what’s happening with U.S. teams comes from outside the arena.
“My interpretation of what’s happening in Canada is there’s a lot more regulation in terms of what people are allowed to do and restrictions than what we’re experiencing here,” said Weatherhead, who was raised in Michigan and grew up a die-hard Detroit Red Wings fan.
“As a result, we have more widespread community transmission and what’s happening in the community will be reflected in what’s happening in these teams, if they’re allowed to interact with the community.”
Sabres centre Jack Eichel said players understand how serious the virus is.
“We’re in the middle of a global pandemic,” he said during a teleconference. “The league is trying to do what they can to keep us safe. It is still a learning experience for all of us. It’s unchartered territory.
“At times maybe we are learning as we go.”
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Chagla said the NHL no longer has the control over players it did during the playoffs when teams were confined to bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton. COVID-19 restrictions also vary in different U.S. states.
California, Texas, Florida and New York State lead the U.S in COVID-19 infections.
“Some parts of the States are more lax in rules,” said Chagla. “Every one of those players has a connection outside of the rink. Some of these guys have families, they have kids that have access to schools, their spouses have access to jobs.
“It makes it a whole lot more liable for you to get into trouble if the pressures and the density of infections in the community is 10 times more than it is in Canada. The odds of you bumping into someone with COVID, or one of your contacts, your household members … is up every day.”
Last week, the NHL announced it was expanding its protocols to battle COVID-19.
The league is introducing game-day rapid tests for players, team staff and on-ice officials. The tests, initially being made available to the U.S.-based teams, provide results with half an hour.
Among other moves, the league is advising players not leave their homes except to attend practices, games or essential activities. There’s also a recommendation that household members stay at home and consider using grocery-delivery services.
Plans for more contact tracing
The NHL is also launching a player-tracking system to assist in contact tracing.
Weatherhead said contact tracing is a key weapon in fighting the spread of the virus.
“If you don’t have the resources to do that sort of in depth contact tracing, then you’re going to miss cases and there will be more widespread transmission on teams and between teams,” she said.
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Dallas Stars head coach Rick Bowness said travel presents one of the biggest challenges for teams.
“Because you are going in and out of hotel lobbies and elevators with other people around, it’s impossible to feel as safe,” Bowness told The Associated Press. “You’ve got strangers on the elevator. In Carolina the other day when we were getting on to an elevator, a couple got off and the woman did not have a mask on, so we don’t know, was she coughing in the elevator? Was she sneezing? Who knows?”
The start of the Oilers game Thursday night was delayed an hour to allow for contact tracing and test results after Puljujarvi was added to the COVID-19 protocol list.
Chagla said it’s possible there may be more positive tests on the Canadian teams.
“I certainly can’t say that every team is going to get through this unscathed,” said the Leafs fan. “I don’t think it’s going to be as profound as what’s happening in the U.S. though.”
Considering the number of infections and games that have already been postponed, Weatherhead doubts the NHL will be able to complete a 56-game season on May 8 as originally planned.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they have to extend the season,” she said. “I feel like they’re at a transition point. If it keeps going like this, it will be very difficult.”