Hockey in the Time of Coronavirus: a Moral Conundrum

The NHL plans for the show to go on, but there are concerns.

This is an editorial. The views expressed by the author do not necessarily represent those of On the Forecheck as a site.

Over the last few days the NHL and NHLPA have made progress on plans to get the Stanley Cup Playoffs back on track, although the remaining 15% of the 2019-20 NHL season won’t be happening. Over the next few days we’ll have more coverage of what this means for the Predators and for us as their fans, including a couple of quick overviews of the Arizona Coyotes, their play-in opponent, before we pick up with pre-playoff coverage closer to the actual date that hockey resumes.

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But first, I wanted to talk about what it means that hockey is resuming.

On the one hand, I’m glad it’s going to be back: it’s been a long, disorienting few months, and the community aspect of sports is incredibly important. So is the regular, scheduled aspect of it: it’s good to have something to do—and to look forward to—at a known time, on a known day. It’s nice to be able to sit down, aim my eyes at a screen, and focus for a little while on a piece of vulcanized rubber as if it matters. And, because we say it matters, maybe it does: a strange kind of alchemy that makes real meaning out of something trivial.

On the other hand, this isn’t a case of there not being any hockey because of a lockout. The NHL season was postponed—and a variety of other hockey seasons, from the AHL to the NWHL to the NCAA, have been canceled—because of the worldwide outbreak of a respiratory virus with no vaccine, no guaranteed treatment, no promises as to what effects the survivors will suffer in the decades ahead, and an alarmingly high fatality rate. We don’t know exactly what that fatality rate is, for a variety of reasons, but Johns Hopkins reports (as of yesterday, May 26) that a little under 6% of confirmed COVID-19 patients in the US have died. A coronavirus outbreak in the NHL, a league which has twice in the last decade failed to deal with the mumps, is a frightening thought.

I want hockey back, but only if it’s safe for everyone: the players, the staff, everyone’s families. I’ve never wanted anyone to die for my entertainment.

Last week, several reporters mentioned that the NHL wasn’t planning to shut the postseason down if one or possibly even two members of a team tested positive for COVID-19. I started this editorial then, but held off, hoping that there’d been a misunderstanding. That seemed reckless, I thought. That seemed unusually callous, even for a man who’s gotten medical experts to claim under oath that head trauma has no proven linkage to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), in order to save his league some settlement money.

In a Zoom conference call yesterday, Gary Bettman and Bill Daly answered questions about the NHL/NHLPA Return-to-Play plan, and, well, no, that’s the plan.

Q. And you will take all the precautions in the world for doing this, it’s obvious. What if one case happened? One morning you wake up and you get a result and you call Gary and you say, well, this player X got positive. Is it going to be all over again, or you’re prepared to deal with the situation and still go on?

BILL DALY: I’ll answer it only because Gary didn’t jump in right away. The bottom line is obviously that’s a key question and something we’ve been in constant communication with our medical advisors on. Their thought process at this point in time is that one single positive test, depending on the circumstance, should not necessarily shut the whole operation down. Obviously we can’t be in a situation where we have an outbreak, and that will affect our ability to continue playing, but a single positive test or isolated positive tests throughout a two‑month tournament should not necessarily mean an end to the tournament.

GARY BETTMAN: And in that regard, that’s why, when I was asked about locations, if we got to a place that has less COVID‑19 in the community, the likelihood of somebody who’s now been tested through a training period, through training camp and now is centralized, the more we can sort of create a bubble, the less likely we’ll have it.

And your example of Bill calling me in the morning to make the decision, it’s really the doctors who are going to be guiding us as to what the right circumstance and response should be, should we have a positive or more than one positive.

(Transcript courtesy of NHL PR.)

That’s alarming to me. From what we know it seems very possible that by the time someone tests positive for coronavirus, they might already have spread it to people in their vicinity who haven’t yet started to show symptoms. It seems as if the NHL’s plan is to go on as if everything is normal for as long as they possibly can.

Later in that conference call, Bettman and Daly were asked about testing, and repeated that the NHL’s protocol includes testing at least twice a week. That’s a lot of coronavirus tests—Bettman estimated 25-30,000 of them. Right now, there are people who need tests in order to get their insurance providers to authorize treatment but can’t get them.

Bettman says that by summer there should be enough tests available that that’s an insignificant number, but the US federal government has bungled or outright interfered with the coronavirus response at every possible opportunity and I don’t know if I have any faith that 30,000 tests will be an insignificant number by July. We’ve already seen celebrities jump the queue for single tests, and the NBA do it for tests numbering in the hundreds instead of the tens of thousands.

Will the NHL bend at all on its determination to re-open if resources are scarcer than Bettman expects now? I don’t know, and the fact that I don’t know makes me very uncomfortable with the prospect. I’d like to know. More than that, I’d like to believe that by July we’ll finally have testing available like every other industrialized country has managed, and I’d like to believe the NHL won’t take any desperately-needed resources away from ordinary people.

Of course I want hockey back, but the risks seem colossal. Every other league on the continent, and many on other continents, have decided it’s just not worth it, and closed the book on this season. The NHL’s refusal to do the same is especially uncomfortable in that context.

Since it ceased to be a challenge cup after 1914, there’s only been one year that the Stanley Cup wasn’t awarded: 1919.

We think of “Spanish flu” (originally from Kansas, probably) as the flu pandemic of 1918, but it wasn’t gone that quickly. Everyone wanted to return to normal life, but people didn’t magically stop dying when the year turned from 1918 to 1919. Businesses re-opened, cities re-opened, and the flu wasn’t gone.

Players on both teams started to become ill during Game 5 of the final between the Seattle Metropolitans and the Montreal Canadiens, but they didn’t cancel the last game of the final—this was back in the days of ties, so either team could have won the cup in Game 6 and one of them would have—until a few hours before it was supposed to start, with five Canadiens players, an uncertain number of Metropolitans players, and the Canadiens’ coach in the hospital.

The Canadiens’ manager-coach, George Kennedy, tried to forfeit the Cup; his counterpart for the Metropolitans, Pete Muldoon, refused to accept that forfeiture. Canadiens star Joe Hall died of pneumonia four days after the canceled game, and Kennedy never made a complete recovery and died of lingering complications a few years later. (You can read more about this tragic interlude in Stanley Cup history at Smithsonian magazine or the Seattle Times.)

Instead of the name of the winning team and its players and staff, the Stanley Cup says for 1919:

Montreal Canadiens
Seattle Metropolitans
Series Not Completed

Denial didn’t work in 1919. A hundred and one years later, I don’t want the same thing to happen again.