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Status of NHL season dependent upon pattern of coronavirus

'Difficult to predict where the pandemic is going,' League's chief medical officer says

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

The coronavirus pandemic is still "really just entering the rapid acceleration phase" in North America, NHL chief medical officer Willem Meeuwisse said Wednesday. 

The League is studying the situation daily and considering many scenarios for resuming the season, which was paused March 12 amid concerns about the pandemic. But it remains to be seen when players will be able to train in small groups, let alone play.

"It's difficult to predict where the pandemic is going and what the timeline will be, but we do expect this is going to get worse before it gets better," Meeuwisse said.

Meeuwisse said the NHL is fortunate that only four players -- two each from the Ottawa Senators and Colorado Avalanche -- have tested positive for the virus.

"We have a pretty good idea now, because we're at almost the two-week mark, that the likelihood of [players] being infected prior to that period is pretty low," Meeuwisse said. "That doesn't mean that somebody can't be exposed now, and I would expect that as this disease progresses and becomes more endemic that we're going to see more tests in players."

Players, coaches and staff have been directed to self-quarantine through April 4, but that is fluid.

"As we get closer to the date, we're going to have to make decisions as to what to do then," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. "We're biting this off in chunks."

Video: Johnston discusses what's next for the League

Meeuwisse is a sports medicine physician with a background in sports health screening, risk analysis and injury prevention. For several weeks, the NHL has also retained Bruce Farber, the chief of infectious disease at Long Island Jewish Medical Center and North Shore University Hospital.

The League is currently keeping an eye on trends in the number of cases and the rates of change worldwide, and in North America in particular, while also monitoring guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Health Canada, and other authorities.

Meeuwisse said he has regular calls with his counterparts at MLB, the NFL and the NBA "just to see how the guidance we're getting from our difference experts aligns and make sure that we're consistent in the information that we have, given that it's constantly changing, so that we have sort of a common base for making decisions."

The NHL would have a number of criteria for resuming the season.

"The specific circumstances are obviously going to depend on the pattern of the disease and the specific risks at that time," Meeuwisse said. "That's one of the difficulties. This thing is changing daily, and guidance from health authorities is changing daily based on the changing circumstances.

"I mean, if we think about bringing people back together, we'd want to have some confidence that the players and the staff themselves are healthy, some confidence the players were not infectious at that time, and that bringing them back together, even in small groups, would not increase the risk of contracting or transmitting the coronavirus.

"And then we'd have to place that in the context of the larger society and the fact that we have people in 31 different market cities and they're likely to differ from one city to the next."

Video: NHL players connect with fans during NHL Pause

Meeuwisse said experts have told the NHL the potential for player-to-player transmission of the virus on the ice is probably relatively low, because most cases are occurring in people in close proximity to each other for at least minutes.

However, the virus is primarily transmitted by touching surfaces and inhaling respiratory particles.

"It's more likely to be transmitted in the context of a hockey game, because you have players in close proximity to each other sharing a common space," Meeuwisse said. "When they aren't playing, they're traveling together as well on airplanes and so on. So that increases the exposure within a team."

Meeuwisse said the NHL would do its best to comply with guidelines in each place, and Deputy Commissioner Daly said the League would consider whether that would affect each team differently.

"We have to try to do what is competitively fair to all the clubs and the players, quite frankly, as we continue to hold out hope that at some point we'll be able to resume play," Deputy Commissioner Daly said. "I don't have any hard and fast answers for you.

"As with everything else, we're going to have to kind of see how it all develops, and if there are anomalies such as that, we're going to have to try to work our way around that in ways that are sensible. I'm only going to be able to determine what's sensible in those situations at the time and knowing what the circumstances are."

In the meantime, the players must stay sharp and in shape as best they can.

"We do allow players to exercise outdoors, so they could be running or doing other things as long as they are not in proximity to other people," Meeuwisse said. "If they can maintain some base conditioning in that way, then when they do come back together, then we do anticipate they'll go through some phases like conditioning first and practicing second or some kind of training camp that will allow them to get to game shape again before resumption of play. But when that's going to happen, the timeframe of that is really difficult to predict."

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