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Players happy with organization, convenience of COVID testing in bubble

Each NHL team has window tailored to fit its daily schedule for preparation for Stanley Cup Qualifiers

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

EDMONTON -- One after another, the Arizona Coyotes players picked up their preprinted forms at the check-in tables, found an open lane to one of the 12 testing stations in Rogers Place's Ford Hall and stepped through the curtains.

On the other side, a technician waited to administer a swab test for COVID-19.

On Wednesday, the swab went to the back of the throat. Thursday will be a nose day, when the swab is gently rotated inside each nostril.

Either way, the whole process takes about five minutes, leaving players free to go on with the rest of their days inside the bubble without hindrance. 

"They've done a really good job of making it convenient for the players," Coyotes forward Derek Stepan said in a phone interview after his test Wednesday. "Obviously, they have a lot of people to test and, with the ease they've been able to do it, it's been really good. … I wouldn't say it's been an inconvenience at all. It's just kind of the world we live in."

Similar testing is happening in Toronto, the hub city for the 12 Eastern Conference teams in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers that begin Saturday, and an essential part of keeping players, coaches and staff healthy while resuming the NHL season -- daily testing -- has become almost routine over the four days since the teams arrived Sunday.

Each day in Edmonton, the hub city for the 12 Western Conference teams, about 900 players, coaches, team staff, League staff, hotel employees and security personnel are tested. On a day like Wednesday, when three exhibition games were played at Rogers Place, as many as 700 additional employees from Oilers Entertainment Group needed to service the building, including team suites and player lounges.

"It fluctuates on days," said NHL associate counsel Jamie Hacker, who oversees the testing process in Edmonton. "It really depends. Obviously, we'll start to diminish as the teams diminish."

Two private diagnostic laboratory services are handling the testing: DynaLIFE Medical Labs in Edmonton and LifeLabs Medical Laboratory Services in Toronto. A requirement of the NHL's testing plan was not interfering with testing for the public in the hub cities. 

"Fortunately, we're in cities where the resources are available to do this without detracting at all from the public, which is one of the cornerstones that we built our program on," League chief medical officer Willem Meeuwisse said. "And we have a detailed protocol for handling positive tests that has been reviewed by the provincial and the national health agencies to ensure that we're, No. 1, detecting people early, as early as possible, and No. 2, preventing any further spread within the bubble."

Each team has a testing window tailored to fit its schedule for the day. The Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche played an exhibition game at 12:30 p.m. local time Wednesday, so they had the first window, from 8-10 a.m. 

After that, the windows were 30 minutes. The Coyotes and Dallas Stars had the window from 10-10:30 a.m. They were followed by the Nashville Predators and Vegas Golden Knights, from 10:30-11 a.m.

There are 12 check-in tables -- six for each team -- organized alphabetically. Those whose last names start with A-C go to the first table. D-G go to the next table, and so on.

For the most part, teams, which were permitted a maximum of 52 in their traveling parties, including a 31-player limit, have come in small groups throughout their testing time. The Calgary Flames were the exception Wednesday. They had one group of about 15 players and staff come at one point during their 11-11:30 a.m. window

They went from check-in to walking out of their testing station in about five minutes.

"It's gone really smoothly," Hacker said. "Teams have come in during their windows and everybody's been on time, and it's nice because we've got lots of collectors and I haven't seen really any waits. People have been in and out as they go through the line and it's been a really smooth process. The players generally come in in dribs and drabs, so they just come in, it's easy and get right through. It's been successful so far."

DynaLIFE couriers bring the tests back to the labs for processing 100 at time, with results coming back within 24 hours. To the players, the process has seemed seamless.

"It's been good," Predators goalie Pekka Rinne said on a Zoom call. "The screening and testing, you do that every day. I think we got used to it in Nashville. We did it already for two and a half weeks every single day, so that's kind of part of the game right now."

Alternating days between swabbing the throat and the nose brings a little variety. Stepan said he prefers either to the more invasive nasal test he received in Arizona.

"Anything is better than the ones down in Scottsdale," Stepan said. "They went up the nose to the back of the throat and it stayed in there for like 10 seconds, so I'll take both of these over that."

In addition to COVID-19 tests, everyone inside each bubble must complete a daily health survey using an app from CLEAR (known for its airport security checkpoints) on their smartphones and a touchless temperature check at a kiosk. That provides another layer of health protection.

"It takes a total of 20 seconds to do the entire app," Stepan said. "It's crazy technology. I don't understand it. I'm not going to try to figure it out what's going on there, but it's pretty cool that they're able to do that."

After going through the final week of Phase 3 training camps with no positive tests, the hope is that trend will continue into Phase 4, which is the resumption of play.

As thorough as the testing and CLEAR technology are, Hacker reminds that ultimately the best protection against the spread of COVID-19 is taking personal responsibility by wearing a mask, frequent hand washing and maintaining social distancing when possible.

"All those other things are more critical," Hacker said. "The testing is just a bonus because the testing will identify if there is going to be an infection and we can stop a spread from happening. But what's really more important is the fact that people take personal responsibility for their practices on a day-to-day basis and their interactions."

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