As the NHL continues to push for an aggressive early return date — to maximize profits and minimize the impact on the 2020-21 season — they seem to be asking, “Is this the soonest the players can safely return?” not “Is this the safest time for our players to return?” What they may find in doing so is pushback from the NHLPA, particularly from players who have seen the impacts of the disease firsthand.
While there’s no way to be certain that what they experienced was related to COVID-19, in December 2019, a respiratory illness did make its way around the Anaheim Ducks organization.
According to reporter Elliott Teaford, who also caught the bug while traveling with the team and details the experience for the Orange County Register, the respiratory infection would result in coughing that made it difficult to breathe, especially at night, and lasted several weeks. Both Ryan Getzlaf and Jakob Silfverberg missed games due to the illness, eventually returning to the Ducks’ lineup on December 27. Even head coach Dallas Eakins fell ill.
This experience highlights how easily these things can spread in locker rooms, though the NHL shouldn’t need much of a reminder, with their last outbreak of the mumps traveling across the league in 2017.
Teaford recalled this quote from Eakins in December:
“Usually, you have a flu go through your room and that’s one thing,” Eakins said at the time. “This respiratory thing we’ve had go through is as nasty as it gets. We’ve had some guys almost get over it. We’ve had a couple of other guys pick it up.”
If not COVID-19 (which, from an admittedly uneducated perspective, the incubation period doesn’t seem nearly long enough to suggest that it was coronavirus), the illness shared both symptoms and a response, as the Ducks did not allow media into the visitors’ locker room at Madison Square Garden while what the illness had left of their roster eventually lost to the New York Rangers on December 22. In March, major professional sports leagues banned reporters from locker rooms in attempts to limit the spread of COVID-19.
As Teaford noted, he got sick with the Ducks’ mystery illness upon returning from New York, anyway.
That experience is surely in players’ heads as the discussion to finish out the regular season carries. Though Gary Bettman and the NHL’s business-driven motivations are understandable, the Ducks roster is acutely aware of how difficult it is to contain a virus. Just because a location is declared neutral and local restrictions have eased enough doesn’t mean it’s free of the virus.
To be clear, nothing will be until there’s a tested vaccine, but even understanding that life has to go on anyway, we’re still not at at point where the NHL can guarantee players’ safety if they return.
And we’re not so far removed from December to forget what can happen even if precautions are taken.