DENVER – By starting a new season at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the NHL signed up to take a run at the unprecedented.
The Wild was largely unaffected through January, but now is in limbo after an apparent outbreak of COVID-19. It became the sixth NHL team to be shut down this season, with games postponed at least through the middle of next week.
On Thursday, the team the Wild played in three consecutive games, the Colorado Avalanche, became the seventh team to go on hiatus.
"We are mindful of the fact that we might be seeing a more aggressive transmission of the virus," Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement released Thursday, "and will continue to make adjustments to our Protocols."
Center Nico Sturm was added to the NHL's COVID-19 protocols list Thursday, joining teammates Nick Bjugstad, Nick Bonino, Joel Eriksson Ek, Marcus Johansson, Jared Spurgeon and Marcus Foligno.
The team flew home from Colorado on Thursday, but players in the protocols traveled separately. The league does not announce whether players on the list have tested positive for the virus, but those players can't practice, play or travel with the team until getting cleared from the league's protocols.
During this pause, the team's training facilities are closed and players will be quarantining while continuing to undergo daily testing.
Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog was added to the protocols list Thursday, and the Colorado Department of Health played a role in the NHL determining that "caution was warranted" while awaiting more test results.
Players are tested in the mornings, and the results aren't available for 24 hours.
Playing it by ear
There are no set thresholds to resume the season, Deputy Commission Bill Daly wrote in an e-mail to the Star Tribune. A restart is a decision by medical advisers based on the risk of a further outbreak being low and under control.
What's happened with other teams around the league reinforces this approach.
“Our priority has been, and will continue to be, to act conservatively with an abundance of caution, understanding that there are many things about the transmission of COVID-19 that are still being discovered.”
Dallas was the first team to be affected, with the NHL closing the Stars' facilities and delaying their start after six players and two staff members tested positive for COVID-19.
When the Stars resumed practice, four days after the NHL shut the team's doors, the league announced 17 Stars players tested positive during training camp.
"We're still trying to get our arms around exactly how the spread occurred," Daly said the day before that announcement, describing the situation as a "classic outbreak."
Teams in trouble
Carolina was the next to go on hiatus, with the Hurricanes' schedule getting interrupted after three games following the addition of five players to the league's protocols. They had four games pushed back and another two rescheduled. While idle, the team quarantined and had bikes dropped off to players so they could stay somewhat active during the downtime. They also held a barre-class workout on Zoom.
Six days after their first missed game, the Hurricanes reunited for their first practice but they skated in four separate groups that included no more than six players on the ice at a time. Not until the next day did the team hold a full practice.
Vegas didn't follow this phased-in plan when the Golden Knights returned to practice Wednesday almost a week after they were halted by the NHL, skating as a team in preparation for its first game back Friday. The Golden Knights had three games delayed after three coaches and a player entered the league's protocols.
More recently, New Jersey and Buffalo have been stalled after playing each other Sunday.
The Devils are postponed through at least Saturday, but that seems likely to be extended; 16 players are currently unavailable due to COVID protocols. Buffalo's numbers are also on the rise, with the team announcing Thursday coach Ralph Krueger has tested positive. For right now, the Sabres are on hold through at least Monday.
Colorado won't play for at least a week, but Thursday's announcement made it seem as if the league was braced for possible positive test results Friday.
Sweat and spit
On Thursday, the NHL revealed more preventive measures. But completely stopping the spread seems impossible.
Hockey is a contact sport, where players are close to each other on the ice, while sitting on the bench in between shifts and during intermissions in the locker room. Players don't wear protective face coverings during practices and games where they work up a sweat and spit frequently. There is a great deal of physical play, including lots of jawing in scrums after the whistle blows.
And although masks and social distancing are required off the ice, players are still sharing the same dressing room, bus ride and airplane.
The other variable is players' movement when they're away from the rink. The NHL used two bubbles for their summer postseason, and there was not one positive test with teams isolated from family and friends.
But this season, playing out of individual cities and arenas, the league's policies put the onus on the players to stay safe by recommending they stay at home as much as possible, not engage in unnecessary interactions with non-family members and avoid restaurants, bars and clubs.
Players also have new standards to follow on the road that limit them to the arena, practice rink and hotel, and already there's been a case of a team breaking the rules — with the Capitals getting fined $100,000 after a group (including Alex Ovechkin) was hanging out in a hotel room.
Add in a virus that isn't slowing down, with new variants emerging, and the NHL remains vulnerable.
"Our priority has been, and will continue to be, to act conservatively with an abundance of caution, understanding that there are many things about the transmission of COVID-19 that are still being discovered," Bettman said.
"As a result, we won't hesitate to take additional measures as indicated by what we are learning and as directed by our medical advisers."