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Why the NHL might have a hard time shaking Covid for good

The current rash of positive Covid tests across the NHL isn’t the first nor will it be the last - and the NHL is uniquely susceptible to future outbreaks because of factors fundamental to its nature.

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Anaheim Ducks Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

We’re going to get in the weeds here in a second, but first, let’s start with some good news.

It seems likely that Sebastian Aho, Seth Jarvis and a member of the Carolina Hurricanes’ training staff who are currently stuck in Canada will be able to return home prior to Christmas, thanks to a combination of medical transport to the border and Tom Dundon’s largesse beyond there. Don Waddell, appearing on the Adam Gold Show earlier today, revealed that the wheels are turning behind the scenes to get all players (the three in Vancouver and four in Minnesota) currently quarantining back to North Carolina.

Now, onto the nerdy stuff. You’ve been warned...what follows is some extremely esoteric jargon. When I was little I was going to be the next great TV weatherman (narrator: he was not), so I’ve always kept up with how the weather works and I did actually retain a bit of knowledge from my freshman meteorology classes at N.C. State.

If you’ve been in North Carolina for any length of time, you’re likely familiar with what meteorologists call cold-air damming. This happens when a shallow layer of cold air at the surface is trapped under a low deck of clouds, and warm air a couple of hundred feet above the surface is unable to mix down to warm up the ground.

The phenomenon of cold air being underneath warm air in a larger sense is called an inversion, because it inverts the standard conditions of the atmosphere where temperatures drop as you move higher up. Among other things, this is what causes fog to form on clear, calm nights.

If you remember your high school physics, you remember that warm air rises. So if there is cold air underneath a layer of warm air, that cold air gets trapped.

Now, picture your local rink. Where’s the coldest part of a rink? Yep - right at the surface. A rink is essentially one big inversion, and the air right along the ice is stuck. It can’t go anywhere because the temperature in an arena rises with height. That’s mostly by design, so that paying customers are not freezing cold, but it’s a real problem in the area of infectious diseases.

Have you ever noticed how flu bugs in the Before Times would tend to go through locker rooms with relative ease? That’s why. The flu is an airborne virus, and when a player has the flu and is skating, exhaling heavily because of physical exertion, everyone on the ice is a sitting duck to contract the virus themselves.

Know what else is an airborne virus? Yep — Covid-19.

When an infected player is skating around, all those virus particles stay concentrated at the surface and don’t mix out. So an outbreak almost becomes a foregone conclusion.

Most other sports don’t have this sort of issue. Baseball and football are (usually) played outside, where the atmosphere will help out to an extent. If they’re played inside, they’re similar to basketball, where fans can be used to mix the air and disperse the virus.

Hockey, though, is uniquely susceptible to airborne disease, by its fundamental nature. It will never be able to totally mitigate that danger, unless they stop playing it on ice. It’s the only major sport that requires an inversion to operate. Fans that would mix the air in a basketball arena would cause the ice to melt in a hockey arena.

In other words, short of eliminating Covid entirely (which pretty much everyone agrees at this point is an impossible target), the NHL is always going to have to operate with a risk of an outbreak of infectious disease at just about any time. A more transmissible virus, such as the Omicron variant, only increases the likelihood of an outbreak.

More than anything else, this is likely a central reason why the NHL hasn’t shut down yet, and is highly unlikely to do so. Some level of exposure is guaranteed, irrespective of any other conditions.

So...where do we go from here? Covid might not be endemic yet and may not be for some time, but the NHL is a billion-dollar industry that requires ice to operate. Clearly, something has to give.

The NHL isn’t going to change the laws of physics, but it can change its laws of operation. It could do what the NFL is tiptoeing towards, allowing vaccinated players to essentially test out of quarantine after they are no longer symptomatic. Border crossings make this more problematic, but at a fundamental level there’s nothing wrong with players who are vaccinated and no longer symptomatic returning to action after a few negative tests.

In this way, the NHL would be moving more toward treating Covid as if it’s the flu, or some other contagious disease like the mumps. (Ever wonder why hockey seems like the only possible sport where a mumps outbreak could happen? Now you know.) They could also make some sort of tweak to the cap rules to allow teams to replace players who are quarantining. To be fair, this probably should have happened already.

Rod Brind’Amour’s perspective is likely to become the conventional wisdom soon. His players have done everything they need to do. Knowing what we know about Covid and how hockey by its nature holds a high risk for sickness, it seems a bit pointless to not figure out a transition to a long-term Covid management plan, because the current “will they or won’t they” patchwork approach to game postponements and cancellations isn’t going to be feasible except in the immediate short term.

tl;dr: Covid-19 is likely to hang around longer in hockey than in any other sport. The sooner the NHL recognizes that fact and plans accordingly, the sooner we’ll be able to move forward.