The NHL and NHLPA announced several new protocols on Thursday after COVID-19 outbreaks on five teams caused nearly a dozen games to be postponed this week. The enhanced measures, endorsed by league medical experts, will be in effect until at least Feb. 28 and could feature further restrictions.
The Buffalo Sabres, Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild, New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers all have multiple players on the league’s COVID protocol related absences list, and have had multiple games postponed.
In the case of the Devils and Sabres, there are concerns that transmission of the virus happened during a game, as on-ice officials who worked that game also have tested positive.
The NHL has postponed 35 games because of COVID-19 protocols since the 2021 regular season began on Jan. 13. Of those games, 17 have yet to be rescheduled.
Among the protocol changes announced Thursday:
Addition of POC testing for U.S.-based clubs
Along with daily lab-based PCR tests, the NHL is working with its U.S.-based teams to provide point of care (POC) rapid testing to be administered on game days to all players, staff and on-ice officials who work in and around the bench area during games. In the past, NHL teams have used rapid testing only for specific situations, like after players returned from a quarantine period.
Teams acquire the tests themselves, and a source told ESPN that daily rapid testing won’t be mandated by the NHL until the league is certain there is an ample supply for each team.
“Although these tests have a slightly lower ability to detect the presence of COVID-19 than lab-based PCR testing, they will provide prompt, same-day results that will reduce the chance of game participation by individuals who might have active infection,” the NFL said in a release. “If a ‘testee’ tests positive, such individual will be immediately isolated as per the Positive Test Protocol and contact tracing will promptly ensue. The individual will not participate in the game that day.”
The NHL is working with Canadian franchises on the availability of similar tests.
Reconfiguring seating for previously infected players
Because there has been evidence of “some protective immunity to re-contracting the COVID-19 virus for at least 90 days after their initial infection,” teams are encouraged to reconfigure assigned seating in the dressing room, during travel and at meals, so that previously infected players are seated next to individuals who never contracted the virus. The previously infected players are used as a “buffer” for players and staff who are unlikely to have that immunity.
All players, coaches, training staff, equipment staff and other members of the traveling party “will be required to remain at home and not leave their place of residence except to attend practices and games, to exercise outdoors on an individual basis, to perform essential activities (e.g., go to the doctor), or to deal with family or other emergencies and other extraordinary circumstances.”
The NHL also is “strongly recommending” that household members limit their activities outside the home as well, and is encouraging teams to provide ways for household members to be tested for COVID-19 regularly.
While the league continues to strongly encourage the wearing of masks, it’s also recommending that teams source and provide KN95 facemasks to all game personnel and are to be worn “at all times when not exercising, including when players are in the locker room.”
All team and other meetings are required to be conducted virtually, including coaching meetings and video review sessions.
Ventilation on the bench and in the penalty box
The NHL removed plexiglass behind the player benches to create better ventilation. Now, it is mandating that the glass from the back of the penalty box areas be removed as well. To protect spectators, teams will have to install mesh netting behind the benches and the penalty box.
If teams choose to seat fans around the benches and penalty boxes, they’ll also have to put a plexiglass barrier in the seating section that’s at least 25 feet back from those areas and have security personnel stationed directly behind the player areas.
The NHL and NHLPA are using their in-game player-tracking system to better map interaction between players on the ice during games, and will be sending some positive test samples for genomic sequencing “to determine specific strain types and to estimate pathways of transmission.”