Puck and the Pandemic

Puck and the Pandemic

The whys and hows of COVID spread among hockey teams

February 22, 2021 | Published by O2

In a hockey game, it’s important to keep your head up. You have to know where the puck is and where it’s going to go. It’s vital for the outcome of the game, of course, but it’s also important for player safety. With pucks flying around, you have to know what’s coming at you. When taking to the rink during this pandemic period, we’ve begun to ask ourselves: what else is flying around our heads at ice-level?

As it would turn out, quite a bit.

Recreational hockey cases on the rise

Over the past year, news outlets have begun to report on various super-spreader events and where they occur. One area of focus has been the sports we play, both amateur and professional. It makes sense: close contact and heavy breathing, especially indoors, is the perfect recipe for an airborne virus like COVID-19. While the virus has had an impact on pretty much every team sport, from the NBA to a charity curling tournament, its impact has been felt broadly in the hockey community.

Stories have surfaced over the past year detailing different hockey-related outbreaks. In October, New Hampshire closed all ice rinks after a spate of COVID outbreaks in the state. Boston saw a cluster of cases linked to youth hockey teams in that city, while places like Ottawa, Saskatchewan, and Alaska experienced outbreaks among hockey teams. Yale University had to change its COVID-19 alert level from green to yellow after a cluster of cases spread through its men’s hockey team. In Toronto, the largest youth hockey association postponed all competition in October, with teams yet to return to the ice.

One widely-reported superspreader event from a hockey game in Florida even became the subject of a CDC study. At that event, 14 of 22 players developed COVID after a recreational hockey game. And in November, Governors from seven states in the Northeastern United States suspended interstate youth hockey competitions until the end of the year. The ban has since been extended through to at least the end of March.

But why hockey? What’s so different about this sport, and why has it seen so many cases, especially in amateur and youth teams?

It’s the Ice, Ice, Baby

It’s important to realize that these outbreaks are occurring mainly in indoor arenas. It goes without saying that players squeezed together in small locker rooms and on benches could lead to the spread of harmful airborne particles, but that alone doesn’t account for the numerous outbreaks seen among hockey teams.

According to some experts, it’s the rinks themselves that may make hockey games a hotspot for COVID transmission. Arenas are designed to keep the ice as cold as possible, pumping warm air outside through their ventilation systems, and creating a cold air inversion. They’re intended to trap cold air near the surface of the ice, restricting temperature and air flow. This is great for keeping the rink cold, but not so great for a player’s respiratory health. Together with the tall boards and glass, the rink acts like a big bowl, keeping the cold, dry air — and viral particles — trapped inside

With twelve heavy-breathing skaters on the ice, and dozens more players, coaches, and officials near the ice, that’s a lot of breath being expelled.

Willem Mazzotti from Divya Portal

Poor air quality in indoor rinks

There’s a special place in our hearts for the community rinks we grew up with. From the chipping paint on the benches in the locker rooms, to the uncomfortable plastic seats in the stands, their atmosphere is a part of many of our childhoods. Despite their charm, the ventilation in these older rinks isn’t always great. This, combined with older combustion-powered ice resurfacing machines, and the dome-like effect of the rink itself, can create a perfect storm for the transmission of harmful airborne particles at ice level.

A number of studies have been conducted over the years discussing the potential dangers of poor air quality in indoor rinks, both old and new. They show us that the threat posed by harmful pollutants emitted by older and poorly-maintained combustion-powered ice resurfacers is real. As we touched on in a recent blog post, combustion engines are a major contributor to air pollution, emitting unsafe levels of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and fine particulate matter.

The same phenomenon that allows air pollution to spread within indoor rinks also allows airborne viruses like COVID-19 to spread. While they’re largely driven by a push to understand the harmful effects of air pollution, these studies have a lot to teach us about the potential dangers of COVID in indoor rinks. They might begin to explain why the virus has wreaked such havoc on amateur and youth hockey.

NHL is moving forward, despite some restrictions

While youth hockey has been greatly impacted by the pandemic, the NHL has been keeping their eye on the puck, and the particulates. After postponing the rest of its season on March 12th, 2020, the league instituted a strict bubble for a modified 24-team postseason. The Western Conference teams – based in Edmonton, and the Eastern Conference teams – based in Toronto, committed to 52-person bubbles for the remainder of the season. These, coupled with stringent testing protocols allowed the NHL to finish its season with very few cases.

With the logistics of instituting another bubble for the 2021 season proving difficult, league officials decided to move forward with realigned divisions to reduce cross-border travel. In order to further limit travel among regions, these new divisions — including a North division of all Canadian teams — won’t face off against each other until the Stanley Cup semi-finals in May.

This bubble-less season has proven complicated, with 35 games postponed so far, and all of them occurring south of the border. The North division’s success, attributable largely to a lower rate of community transmission, shows that it’s possible for professional sports to continue in this pandemic era, especially given strict guidelines and regulations.

In order to try to limit the pandemic’s reach the NHL has recently introduced improved safety measures. These include removing the glass and installing HEPA filters behind the benches to improve airflow, introducing game-day rapid testing, asking players to only leave their homes for practices, games, and essential activities, as well as other game-day restrictions.

Making our rinks safer

With the NHL’s bubbled post-season, and the North division’s success so far, what can the league teach us about ways to increase player safety in amateur hockey?

Unfortunately, a strict bubble isn’t realistic for anyone but a professional sports league, so that’s a no-go. Given the recent changes the NHL has made, it’s clear that improving airflow in arenas is a major key to reducing the spread of harmful airborne particles. From what we’re learning about how this virus spreads, we may need to fundamentally rethink the air quality in hockey arenas.

In the meantime, improving and maintaining existing ventilation systems, investing in air purification systems, and opening doors to increase airflow are all ways rink managers can increase safety for athletes. Of course, the virus can’t spread if it never enters the arena, so the number one way to reduce spread on the ice is to reduce it off the ice. Social distancing, increased hand hygiene, and wearing a respirator or mask, are all ways we can stop the spread in arenas.

Take it outside

If you walk around any neighbourhood in Canada these days, you’ll hear the familiar sound of skates carving through ice and pucks slamming against fences. With parents and kids desperate for a way to continue playing, people in the Northern hemisphere have taken to building backyard rinks like never before. This backyard boom has also created new business opportunities for budding entrepreneurs.

The NHL has even gotten in on the fun by building a ‘backyard’ rink of their own. The league hosted its first two truly outdoor games in Lake Tahoe this past weekend.

Hockey’s enduring legacy

Here in Canada, we really love hockey. So much so, that in the early days of the pandemic we used hockey sticks as units of measurement for social distancing. For millions of people it is a refuge — an escape from the trials of everyday life — something we could all use a bit more of these days. Stickhandling through this past year has been tough on all of us, and experts have emphasized the importance of physical activity for our physical and mental health. Hockey is no exception. These backyard rinks are proof of this sport’s resilience – even in the face of a global pandemic.

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