“We’re under tight protocol here,” center Nicklas Backstrom said Thursday. “We’re testing every day. We’re trying to do the right things here. I think we had a pretty good idea what the upcoming season was going to be, but here we are. We’ve just got to deal with this as a team.”
This unprecedented NHL season is only a week and a half old, but Washington is not the only team dealing with coronavirus issues.
The Carolina Hurricanes have postponed a handful of games and reportedly have three players who have tested positive since the season began. Seventeen players for the Dallas Stars tested positive ahead of the season, which forced the team to shut down its facilities for several days. The Stars had their first four games postponed and finally made their season debut Friday. Washington’s schedule, though, remains unchanged.
“We totally understand why the rules are in place, and there’s no arguing with that. We want to be compliant,” Coach Peter Laviolette said. “We made a mistake, and we need to do a better job.”
The Capitals are without Samsonov, Ovechkin, center Evgeny Kuznetsov and defenseman Dmitry Orlov. The four gathered in a Pittsburgh hotel room, a violation of the NHL’s coronavirus guidelines. The Capitals were hit with a $100,000 fine, and the four went on the NHL’s covid-19 protocol-related absences list.
NHL protocols state the decision whether to impose a quarantine for a person considered to be a close contact — and the length and nature of the quarantine — will take into consideration the likelihood that the person contracted the virus. All determinations are made in consultation with local public health authorities.
In the NHL, a person can become a close contact if they come within six feet of another person who tested positive and stay in that vicinity for at least 15 minutes. That’s how Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Orlov ended up in quarantine after their hotel room socializing.
But the rules are different at the rink. The NHL doesn’t consider players who sit together on the bench or players who face off in games played without masks to be close contacts.
“The way the rules seem to me is we control what we know we can control, right?” winger T.J. Oshie said Thursday. “I can’t go out there and give my best effort if I’m wearing a mask and can’t breathe on the bench. At the same token, when we’re on the bus or doing other things where I can control that, that’s where the rules are set in for us.
“Do I like them? Of course not. I don’t think anyone likes wearing a mask. But they’re there to keep us safe.”
Zach Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University, said there is an argument to be made that both actions — playing in a hockey game with a player who has the virus or spending hours unmasked in a hotel room together — are equally dangerous.
“Probably, look, put a gun to my head and here is someone that is covid positive, you have to either play a hockey game with them and sit on the bench or spend three hours in a hotel room playing Xbox? I would take the hockey game,” Binney said.
Binney said there was “virtually no question” the virus could spread at a hockey game. However, he noted, just because a person played with someone who is positive or sat next to him on the bench does not mean he unquestionably will contract the virus.
Binney added: “What we call the attack rate, if you live in a household with someone who is covid-19 positive, there is only about a 30 to 50 percent chance you get infected. … Those people in the hotel room? Those people could turn up completely fine. That is totally possible.”
Ovechkin and Orlov have covid-19 antibodies, Ovechkin’s wife, Nastya, wrote on Instagram on Thursday, but that doesn’t mean they can bypass quarantine protocols.
NHL protocols state: “At this point, we cannot say with certainty that a positive antibody test means you cannot contract COVID-19. We also cannot say whether or not you may be transiently contagious if you’re re-exposed to COVID-19. As such, there are no ‘immunity passports’ arising out of antibody testing.”
The NHL Players’ Association frequently discusses the guidelines with the league but is not pursuing a change in the antibody testing protocols to clear a player at this time.
Washington, as of Saturday, had just one positive test — Samsonov’s. But if the Caps get another positive in the coming days, that is cause for concern, Binney said. The same goes for the Penguins and Sabres, Washington’s opponents during and after Samsonov’s positive test.
If multiple tests come back positive, Binney suggested shutting down the Capitals and their opponent. The exception would be if a team could point to a specific action it believed caused the positive test — and that action didn’t involve Washington.
“[The Capitals’] behavior does not demonstrate to me that they were creating an environment where covid cannot spread,” Binney said, “and I think we need to operate under the assumption that it could have spread.”