The Implications of Auston Matthews’ COVID-19 Diagnosis

Yesterday, the Toronto Maple Leafs world was hit hard by the report that Auston Matthews, one of the team’s biggest stars, had become infected by COVID-19 as a result of participating in Phase 2 of the NHL’s plan to re-open the 2019-20 postseason. This news comes from a number of sources.

The Primary Concern: The Wellness of NHL Players

At this point, because the story is so close to the Maple Leafs, the team I cover and have come to know for two seasons, my first reaction is to think like a father and a grandfather. I have to first consider the human and medical issues involved.

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The impact that this announcement will have on the NHL’s plans for reopening the season simply isn’t the most important news. COVID-19 is first a health issue, and the recovery of Matthews and all other NHL players and staff is the most pressing problem. That part is not complex.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

COVID-19 can be deadly, and people we know have it. Because these people are NHL players and staff makes it more personal for all NHL fans. And, perhaps it’s a good thing that we think about the health impacts of COVID-19 more personally.

Maple Leafs fans who have followed what team members have been doing during the suspension of NHL games since March 12 know that goalie Frederik Andersen has been holed-up with Matthews in Arizona. Although the report also noted that members of the Arizona Coyotes had tested positive for COVID-19, the word on Andersen — who was sharing Matthews’ Arizona home — is that he tested negative and obviously is no longer staying there.

Frederik Andersen Toronto Maple Leafs
Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Our first concern is Matthews’ recovery. Maple Leafs fans everywhere hope he receives the medical treatment he needs to recover, because as strong and healthy as he is, recovery isn’t always a given with this disease. I have been able to find no information about what he is doing as he recovers or whether he’s at home or in a Phoenix hospital.

The Secondary Concern: The NHL’s Plans to Re-Open the Season

The secondary issue yesterday’s news brought to all hockey fans is the realization that COVID-19 is not primarily a sports issue about lost revenue – either by the players or the league. An increased number of COVID-19 infections shifts the conversation about the NHL’s plans to restart more toward the medical questions (the health of players) than the revenue questions (the wealth of players). We suddenly have new information to consider.

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Insofar as I understand it, Matthews’ infection came because he was in proximity with a group of NHL hockey players in the Phoenix area who had begun to engage Phase 2 of the NHL’s re-start plan. As noted, Coyotes players were also infected. Matthews and Andersen had successfully self-quarantined for months prior to the Phase 2 activities. The problem is broader than just in Phoenix.

We now have findings from two recent Phase 2 situations that provide new information. A similar incident also happened in the Tampa Bay area in Florida earlier in the week and Lightning players were infected. From what I read, in none of these cases were the players at fault. They were doing exactly what they were supposed to do. That is, they were following the NHL’s Phase 2 plan.

Is It Time to Stop and Consider New Evidence?

Given what we have learned about the health risks involved with the planned Phase 2 of the NHL restart, is it time for the league to stop in its tracks and take some time to figure this out? If nothing else, yesterday’s reports of COVID-19 infections seem to make discussions about the NHL’s continuing plan for this season’s resumption of play absolutely necessary. Obviously, the reports of infection raise new problems that must be resolved before any re-opening.

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These reports also raise questions once again about allowing people from other countries such as the United States — where COVID-19 is more out of control — into Canada. The number of new COVID-19 cases reported each day in states like Arizona and Florida that are “opening up” is alarming.

Specifically, in Florida today, the state recorded 4,049 new COVID-19 cases. That was the state’s highest single-day increase ever. In those states, there’s no quarantine protocol enforcement in place and players from these states would be entering Canada to train with their teams.

On Thursday, according to a CBC News report, the federal government moved to help one of three Canadian markets (Vancouver, Edmonton or Toronto) become hub cities for the NHL’s resumption of play. Specifically, a federal official reported that the government issued an order in council that would allow one of those cities to serve as one of the NHL’s two hub cities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Will that option remain open in light of the recent reports? Canadians will see how the Governor-General of Canada, who recently worked with the NHL on a “cohort quarantine” that allowed league members to bypass the 14-day quarantine upon entering Canada, might respond to this new information.

Where Are We Now?

In all this conversation, the central fact is that the COVID-19 pandemic is about more than sports, and people are losing loved ones. I believe the first priority is the recovery of those who have contracted COVID-19. The second priority is working to ensure that people remain healthy and avoid situations where they, too, might become infected.

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In the light of new reports about COVID-19 infections during NHL-sanctioned Phase 2 activities, plans to adjust the NHL’s re-opening of the season seem so much less important. Stopping to assess where we are is simply what intelligent people do when they gain more information.