Virus expert says NHL return would require fast and frequent testing, no fans

San Jose Sharks' Kevin Labanc (62) chases Edmonton Oilers' Connor McDavid (97) during second period NHL action in Edmonton, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

A summer return of the NHL isn’t out of the question, according to the one of Canada’s top infectious disease experts, but players would have to be frequently tested for COVID-19 for it to work.

“If we have all the checks and balances in place to make sure we can do accurate testing and identify cases as soon as they pop up, then I think it’s potentially feasible,” said Dr. Jason Kindrachuk, Canada Research Chair on viruses at the University of Manitoba.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has talked about having NHL teams convene in up to four cities to play out the 2019/20 season. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said he received a phone call from Bettman, asking about how the province is handling the coronavirus. Edmonton is a potential location for NHL games because of the city’s relatively low numbers. Rogers Place has a practice rink and is close to numerous hotels, making it easier to isolate the teams.

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However, Kindrachuk said if even one player tests positive, it could derail the whole schedule at a site.

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“We could start trying this and find out very quickly that the virus starts spreading amongst the athletes and have to shut down everything,” he explained. “If you have somebody that tests positive, you have to figure out who they had close contact with.”

That would mean teammates, coaches, trainers, and opponents would all be at risk and would need immediate testing.

“It becomes a really big struggle to do this,” added Kindrachuk.

As for packed arenas, that’s even further down the road.

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“From a practical standpoint, it’s going to be a while,” explained Kindrachuk. “Even when we see cases reducing and we think we’ve reduced community transmission and things start to open up a bit, the virus is still lingering in the background. As soon as you give the virus the opportunity to spread from one person to another, you get transmission occurring.

“I don’t think we’re going to see fans in the stands up until the point when we have a vaccine or we don’t see any community transmission for an extended period.”

On Tuesday, the 2020 Hlinka Gretzky Cup was canceled. It was set to be played in Edmonton and Red Deer from August 3-8.

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