It was bound to happen sooner or later, and it was sooner for the Bruins experiencing their first brush with COVID-19.
The B’s announced on Friday that a player tested positive for the coronavirus, but had since been tested twice with negative results while remaining asymptomatic all throughout the process.
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Bruins general manager Don Sweeney indicated the unnamed player hasn’t been to the Warrior Ice Arena practice facility this week once it was opened up to Bruins players for Phase 2 of the league’s Return to Play protocol.
There were images and video of Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand working out together midweek on the ice, but there are no indications of exactly how many Bruins players actually worked out on the ice, or off, at Warrior this past week.
It was an instance of current NHL player testing working perfectly to keep a potentially infected player away from the rest of team personnel as the league takes baby steps toward a return. But it also raises many other questions about potential false positive test results, exactly how quickly any NHL teams should begin voluntary practices and the learning curve that every NHL organization is going to experience over the coming weeks and months.
“We’re going to leave this pretty generic,” said Don Sweeney, who said the positive Bruins player as well as any individuals linked in contact tracing haven’t used — and won’t be able to use — the facilities at Warrior Ice Arena until they are tested again next week. “Everybody is learning how we properly interact and distance, and how we react to the original test results when we receive them. When we get tested daily in the later stages, we’ll hopefully eliminate some of the possibilities [of infections]. We’re learning about those things and we’re continuing to learn throughout as the players go through it, and really with how everybody interacts [with it].
“I feel very comfortable with what our staff is doing in that small pod group setup. The distancing aspect involved with that. The people at Warrior and the distancing protocol has all been put in place. On the surface it’s certainly challenging, so when we start to increase the numbers [of players] it’s going to take even more effort on everybody’s part when it comes to the sanitization of equipment and protocols that are unnatural for all of us. It’s becoming more natural for all of us in recent days and they are going to have to be adhered to if we hope to move through all the phases, which we are all hopeful that we can do.”
Players are expected to be tested at least twice a week once training camp ramps up on July 10 and will be tested daily once the NHL begins playing games again presumably at some point in August.
The ramped-up frequency of testing is hopefully going to keep outbreaks from happening with any NHL organization once camps open in July, and the greater likelihood is that teams are going to experience player infections in larger numbers now as they gather back up to practice again in the coming weeks.
Sweeney said that Anton Blidh, Joakim Nordstrom, David Pastrnak, Jakub Zboril, Daniel Vladar and Urho Vaakanainen were among the players still over in Europe at this point, and it will be a few weeks after their arrival that they would be seen at Warrior Ice Arena.
“We’ve got several players outside the country and several players that have gone back to Canada. There have been players that have had access to ice and skating facilities that other players have not,” said Sweeney. “You have to go through the protocols of testing when they come in and there will be a mandated quarantine period for players coming from abroad. But there are no indications that we would have a player that wouldn’t be eligible [to play].”
All of this is a stark reminder that the NHL is still a long way away from actually returning even as we get excited about a 24-team playoff format, and the confirmed identities of the two hub cities may come into focus next week.
The NHL and the NHLPA still need to agree on many issues, including how much access hockey players are going to have to their families, how much time they are going to potentially spend in isolation and just how much of a risk it’s going to be for the players potentially spending a few months playing games this summer and fall.
The NHL takes its share of PR hits and many times rightfully so, but it deserves some credit for the deliberate and thought-out way that it has rolled out phases in the Return to Play Plan. The league hasn’t named hub cities and it hasn’t even settled on a start date for games because the NHL wants to make the decision based on the latest bits of information concerning the COVID-19 outbreak.
It's looking to avoid the situation that the NBA currently finds itself, with the league already committed to playing all games in Orlando while the state of Florida has seen the number of cases spike in recent days.
The bottom line, though, is that a player testing positive for the Bruins was inevitable throughout this process, and it happening sooner rather later is better from a timing standpoint. Can you imagine Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak or Tuukka Rask testing positive in the middle of a conference final playoff series where an absence could drastically change the outcome of the entire series?
This is part of the unpredictable, uncharted nature of what lies ahead of us when it comes to professional sports returning over the next few months. It’s not going to be easy and there will be starts and stops to everything as we get closer to a return date.
This week’s setback for the Bruins was a benign reminder of that with an asymptomatic player who should be back in the fold once training camp is set to begin a month from now.