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National Hockey League postpones games due to COVID-19

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The sports world is getting hit hard by the resurgence of the coronavirus. This weekend, for the first time all season, the NFL canceled games due to the virus. That's old hat for the NHL, at this point. Pro hockey has had to postpone 29 games so far, even though all but one player in the entire league is vaccinated. So when and why did hockey become a superspreader sport? We will put that to Marisa Ingemi. She covers hockey and the brand-new Seattle Kraken for The Seattle Times. Welcome to the program.

MARISA INGEMI: Yeah, thanks for having me.

DETROW: So we should clarify right off the bat, there are a ton of cases right now, but it seems like, by and large, they're asymptomatic or mild.

INGEMI: Yeah. As of Saturday morning, there were over 60 players in COVID protocol in the NHL. But one of the Calgary Flames' medical directors yesterday was talking about how, at least in their instance, where they have 27 people in protocol, almost every case is mild. And every case I've heard of - there's only three cases in Seattle as of recording this, and they were asymptomatic last I heard. So it's not like guys are having major issues, but they all have tested positive that are in protocol.

DETROW: Can you remind us how the NHL approached this season? I mean, those bubbles the NHL and NBA lived in last year are long gone. What has the approach been?

INGEMI: Yeah, a lot of the philosophy this year was just making sure guys were vaccinated, and that message really got through everyone except for one player. It was really a back-to-normal situation for the most part, until a couple of teams had various outbreaks or clusters of outbreaks, and they were really contained. Like, early on in the year, the Kraken had one player test positive and nobody else did. It really kind of was working the best it really could until more recently and where it really became clear it was spreading across the league.

DETROW: So now three teams have been shut down through the rest of the calendar year. I mean, how bad did it have to get to this point? And is the league considering taking broader steps if this keeps spreading?

INGEMI: Yeah. I mean, they've already gone back to last year's protocols, which included wearing masks around the team, like, on the team buses, not really going out to any indoor events or anything. They've shut down so much stuff. So they've made that decision through January 7. One other element of this is the players really wanted to go to the Winter Olympics. And the league had a condition that if the season has to be modified in a significant way, they had the right to tell players they can't go anymore because of that three-week break in the middle of February for the players to go to the Olympics.

DETROW: You mentioned that these protocols are going back into place about masking off the ice, but you also wrote a really interesting article a few days ago making the case that maybe it doesn't matter because maybe just being on an ice rink is really the perfect storm of airflow to spread COVID. Tell us why that was.

INGEMI: Yes. I was talking to epidemiologists and some experts about just the environment in ice rinks because the airflow, the ventilation in these rinks, are not very great. The temperature around the ice is just really not a good environment for trying to not get sick in general. Between the ventilation, between the temperature drop around the ice, between kind of that box of air that ends up hovering around head level where guys are, like, breathing super heavy and there's just a lot of droplets going on and then, like, the plexiglass being up and the air is going in all these different directions, it really just is kind of the perfect storm, according to these experts, for the kind of breakout that we're seeing happen in the NHL.

DETROW: So we're talking about the players here. But professional sports, of course, involves thousands and thousands of people in the stands. And in the NHL, that's all in an indoor setting. Are any teams rethinking what to do with the fan bases?

INGEMI: So the Montreal Canadiens already played a game with the Flyers where they announced, like, two hours before the game that Quebec recommended not having fans there. In Ontario, they made it so that only 50% capacity was allowed at games. What's really difficult is there are so many different governments in the NHL because there are seven teams in Canada, and then you have so many teams in the United States. Like, between Seattle and Florida, there are very different just, like, day-to-day rules about masking and proof of vaccination. Like, you need show a proof of vaccination to get into a Kraken game. You do not need to do that to go to other games in the leagues. And that goes across pro sports, it feels like. But in the NHL, because of that aspect, where you have Canadian governments who maybe are a little more proactive or the testing up there is a little bit different as well, it's really kind of a hard situation to regulate for fans.

DETROW: Marisa Ingemi is with The Seattle Times and covers the Seattle Kraken. Thanks for your reporting.

INGEMI: Yeah, thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.