The National Hockey League (NHL) has moved to strengthen its COVID-19 protocols after the Colorado Avalanche became the fifth US-based team to have its season suspended.

The NHL announced yesterday (Thursday) that Avalanche games have been postponed at least through February 11 as a result of players recently entering the League’s COVID Protocols. The decision was made by the League’s, Players’ Association’s (NHLPA’s) and club’s medical groups in conjunction with the Colorado Department of Health, which determined that more caution was warranted while the parties are analysing test results in the coming days.

The team’s training facilities have been closed, effective immediately, and will remain closed until further notice. The New Jersey Devils already had games postponed through at least Saturday, Buffalo Sabres through Monday and Minnesota Wild through Tuesday, while the Vegas Golden Knights are due to resume play today.

So far, 26 games have been postponed affecting 16 of the NHL’s 24 US teams. The Avalanche announcement came just hours after the League detailed a raft of new preventative measures designed to continue to mitigate the risk of incidences of exposure and contraction of COVID-19 when players and other club personnel are at, and interacting in, arenas.

“With about 20% of our season played, we are mindful of the fact that we might be seeing a more aggressive transmission of the virus and will continue to make adjustments to our Protocols as we consult on a daily basis with, and adhere to, the recommendations of our medical advisors,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

“It is important to note that, while we have seen almost 100 players enter our COVID Protocols, fewer than half have done so because of confirmed positive tests – and, among that group, many have not been symptomatic.

“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. 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.”

Beginning with Thursday’s games, all clubs have been told to implement four new measures. To allow for air flow to more easily move away from the benches where players and coaches are in close proximity to one another during games, clubs/arenas must remove the partitions of shielding that are behind the home and visiting team benches.

In order to minimise the period of time for possible exposure and transmission of COVID-19 while players are gathered at the arena, players and coaching staff are being advised, whenever practicable, to arrive at the arena no more than one hour and 45 minutes before puck drop, except to receive necessary treatment or to engage in preparations in advance of the game.

On game days (and non-game days), meetings must be conducted virtually, to the greatest extent possible. Further, players have been told to leave the arena as “expeditiously as possible” after the conclusion of each game.

In order to reduce, to the extent possible, the number of players in a room at the same time, each club will need take steps to utilise or create additional locker room space for the home and visiting teams. This will need to ensure physical distancing of at least six feet between players is achieved at each of their stalls.

The League added it is considering adoption of a requirement for clubs/arenas to deploy portable air cleaners with HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) capabilities behind the player bench areas, in order to improve indoor air quality and mitigate airborne viral transmission.

“As we continue to learn about the nature and transmission of COVID-19, we are trying to identify the relevant aspects of our game that are either unique or common among other sports and adjust our Protocols accordingly,” added Dr. Willem Meeuwisse, NHL chief medical officer.

“We will continue to analyse all of these factors and the related medical data will continue to drive all of our decisions.”

In December, the NHL confirmed plans to begin a 56-game regular season schedule on January 13, with teams to play at their home arenas. The regular season is scheduled to conclude on May 8, with the Stanley Cup playoffs to feature 16 teams in the traditional best-of-seven, four-round format and conclude around mid-July. The 2021-22 season would then begin as ‘normal’ in October.

The 2019-20 NHL season was suspended in March due to COVID-19, with the campaign eventually being concluded in August and September. All games were held within centralised hubs in the Canadian cities of Toronto and Edmonton. The NHL’s seven Canadian franchises are currently competing in their own North Division, eradicating the need for cross-border travel.