General Manager Kyle Dubas addressed the media on Saturday to discuss the positive COVID-19 cases on the Leafs and Marlies, the timeline of events this past week, the postponement of this weekend’s games, the plan for getting the players and staff back home to Toronto, and whether a pause of the NHL season is a real possibility at this stage.
Nine Maple Leafs in total have tested positive via PCR tests as of Saturday evening: John Tavares, Alex Kerfoot, Jason Spezza, Wayne Simmonds, Sheldon Keefe, Spencer Carbery, TJ Brodie, Travis Dermott, and Jack Campbell.
Kyle Dubas provides a timeline of events for the COVID-19 situation with the team
Dubas: I’ll begin by giving a timeline of what has transpired with our team specifically on this road trip.
Our team departed to Edmonton from Toronto on Sunday afternoon and arrived in Edmonton on Sunday night. Following the NHLPA health and safety protocols, everyone in the traveling party — players and staff — had a PCR nasal swab test performed on Monday morning in Edmonton. All of those tests returned as negative. We had no players with any symptoms or any illness on Monday.
We played the game on Tuesday night in Edmonton. We were informed that our game against Calgary was going to be postponed. We stayed an additional night in Edmonton on Tuesday night than what was scheduled.
We flew to Vancouver on Wednesday — a scheduled off-day for our team. We flew here, checked into the hotel, and on Thursday morning, it was our next scheduled testing day, which we performed in Vancouver. We had a practice on Thursday afternoon.
Very early yesterday morning, we received a call from our medical director, Dr. Noah Forman, informing me that two of our players had tested positive for COVID on the previous day’s PCR test performed in Vancouver. We immediately then canceled practice yesterday in Vancouver at UBC and performed another round of PCR and rapid antigen testing on our players and staff on the trip in addition to the Air Canada flight crew.
We were informed last night that we have two additional players whose PCR tests returned positive results. All four players have been placed into Covid protocol. All of that has been communicated to the NHL. Two of the four players are entirely asymptomatic, one had mild symptoms that have dissipated, and one has some fever, chills, and body aches.
That is where we stand at this moment. We came into today ready to play tonight. We were informed a few hours ago that our game tonight against Vancouver and our game tomorrow night in Seattle will be postponed.
We are in Vancouver still awaiting the results of our PCR tests that were done very early this morning in preparation for the game tonight. Once we have the results of those, anybody who has tested negative today will return to Toronto on the team charter.
All of our rapid antigen tests that were performed this morning on our traveling party and players came back as negative, but we will wait for the PCR tests to be returned. Anyone who is negative will return to Toronto on the team charter. Anyone returning a positive result we are still coordinating travel for those players back to Toronto.
Kyle Dubas Q&A
What is going through your mind as you think about your players and Christmas and think about the team and the season at this point?
Dubas: It is a good question. I haven’t had a whole lot of time. Fortunately, these are the first positives we have dealt with even going back to the 2020 summer bubble when it was in Toronto for us. As it has gone on and different variants have come up and you see how quickly this specific one spreads, you are naive if you think it is going to avoid a team of 20-25 players who are traveling at any one time, plus all the staff, especially as you go to different parts of the country and continent where regulations are very different.
Our players deserve a lot of credit. They have been excellent throughout this entire thing. I am happy that they are all feeling quite well. We are just trying to get through every day as healthy as possible.
When it comes to Christmas, unfortunately, part of this line of work — because it is in winter — you are going to miss various things, just like how in football or baseball, you are going to miss different summer holidays. It is unfortunate. We will try to do our best to get everybody with their family during the holidays.
Can you give us an update on what is happening with the Marlies?
Dubas: As of this morning, in their PCR tests coming off of their road trip last weekend where they went to Springfield, Bridgeport, and Providence, I believe they are up to 10 players who have tested positive for COVID-19, which is an outbreak. All players and staff are isolating, per the Toronto health guidelines, for 10 days.
When you are going through this type of situation, what were the conversations with the league like in terms of trying to postpone this game? The announcement came rather late even though it seemed like the situation was kind of dire. Did you talk to the other team? Are you lobbying during the process?
Dubas: I don’t think there was any lobbying. I know people look at it and it has been handled different ways throughout the season. We played against teams that were going through different things. The Islanders game, in particular, jumps out as probably the other situation where we played a team going through the onset of an outbreak. They had their season paused a game later.
I have talked to the other GMs — to Ken Holland in Edmonton because they are going into Seattle with different border complications you are trying to sort out. I talked to Jim Rutherford yesterday just about testing and making sure everything was going to be done and tests were going to be returned in time for the game today.
Everybody wants to avoid any positives if we can in an attempt to slow any spread regardless of what the symptoms may be or whether the virus is getting to the point where the impact is less deadly or creating less severe illness. I think that is what we all hope for as this goes along — that it is the outcome at some point as it continues to transform itself and go into different variants and vaccination and booster rates go up.
With us, it has just been trying to learn our way through it. Because it is the first time we have encountered it, we have tried to do all that we can to keep our group testing negative and being able to get home.
Is this any more jarring given the fact that being around the team, the players and coaching staff seemed to be following protocols anyway before the enhanced protocols were officially instituted by the league this week? Is it more jarring that it still found its way in?
Dubas: I guess. I think our players have been outstanding in each of the three seasons now that we have operated under various different protocols. The bubble was a different beast because you were in a bubble and you knew it was going to be kept out. Last season and this season, our players, for anything we have asked them to do, have largely handled it on their own.
I think it is unfortunate [it’s happening] despite what our guys have done independently to stay healthy, stay in the lineup, and avoid coming in contact with the virus so it doesn’t spread to each other or people in the community and their families.
It is disappointing given what is known so far about the Omicron variant. I am hopeful the early data we get is great and it is more transmissible — which is not great — but that it creates less illness, less hospitalization, and less death. I don’t pretend to be an epidemiologist or a doctor or anything like that. I am just optimistic and hopeful.
Once you get home, is it just an hour-by-hour, day-by-day process?
Dubas: Yeah, the league, when I spoke to Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, said that our next two games are postponed but that we were not being shut down per se. We have a batch of test results that are coming back today in the next couple of hours before we can get to the airport and go, but that will be very instructive in terms of where we are at and how we have been able to come through the first couple of days.
What is the process like for getting the players who are in protocol home?
Dubas: We are just learning how to go through all of that. Obviously, they can’t go on commercial flights. It wouldn’t be anywhere close to responsible for us to do that. We are trying to work through all of the options to make sure we are abiding by every rule and doing things properly to get them from Vancouver to Toronto in the next day or so and then into isolation there in Toronto.
It is an evolving process. It is our first time trying to go through it. We are trying to make sure we are abiding by every single rule and we are not putting anybody else at risk. As soon as they leave the hotel here and leave their rooms, it is just making sure we are doing everything right not to expose anybody further.
What is your sense of how those guys are doing and how the team is doing? Did you speak to the group to gauge how everyone is handling this?
Dubas: Since we canceled practice, we haven’t been together as a group. We have just been communicating in large group messages and emails. As for the four guys — I have spoken to them a number of times — each seems to be in good spirits and doing well.
The rest of the team — I saw some of the players this morning at the rink. There was a very optional skate for all of the players who tested negative yesterday and had a negative rapid antigen this morning. I think everyone is a little on edge and unsure about what is happening. There have been a lot of discussions between the players, the NHLPA, and the league as well, which I am not privy to.
I know there are a lot of things at top-of-mind for the players. Most notable for our guys is what would happen with the upcoming Seattle trip and if there was a positive test there, where you have to cross a border and you are positive. That is not a concern now with the game on Sunday being postponed.
With Auston Matthews already named to Team USA and a number of other players in contention for their national teams, what are your feelings about sending Maple Leafs players to the Olympics?
Dubas: That is a tough one for me. Those athletes have worked their entire life to be in consideration to go to the Olympics. For this era of players, their whole life that they have grown up, the best players — save for 2018 — have been at the Olympics. It has always been a great event and something they all aspire to when you talk to them.
That is going to be their individual choice. I don’t think it is our place to really step into the aspirations of an athlete who has worked a long time towards that. I know that for the professional athletes, it’s a lot different than the amateur athletes in terms of the work put in and different factors. For us to have a strong opinion on it either way would be a disservice to the aspirations of our players.
Has there been any discussion about hitting pause on the league entirely? Has it been brought up?
Dubas: It has not been brought up to us. I am hopeful that it is not necessary. As we have all learned as we have gone through this for the last two years, every day is a new day. It is impossible to say what tomorrow is going to bring in terms of the evolution of this virus and what we can do to get out from all of the various different encumbrances and restrictions it places on our lives.
My desire is that we are all working towards a place, optimistically, where we can get back to life as it was two years ago at this time. I am generally optimistic. That is not a statement of public health or anything political. I am just optimistic we will get back to that spot. I think everyone in the world will be happier when we do.
I sure hope we don’t have to pause or delay, but if it is in the best interest of the health and safety of the players, the fans, and the public in general, I am sure the league will make the right decision.
There seems to be a growing public sentiment that if the players are vaccinated and asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic — and this applies across the league, not just to your players — why can’t they just play? What are the doctors saying about that if they are really not that bad?
Dubas: I am very tentative to be definitive on this one. I get a little bit both ways when it is overly doom and gloom or when it is overly optimistic. I think it is best to kind of wait and see the impact on it.
My hope is that with coronavirus — as it shifts from being a pandemic to endemic — is that because of vaccinations, different precautions, and different protections people build up or have, we eventually treat it like we would treat someone who has strep throat on our team or someone has the flu on the team.
I know, in either of those cases, we wouldn’t have those players participating. Nick Richie was ill last weekend — it was a non-Covid-related illness — and he didn’t travel with the team or play when he was ill.
Regarding asymptomatic players, there are so many various things and nothing definitive about the asymptomatic capacity to transmit different virus or various things like that. I get skeptical when people get definitive about these things and the impacts of them when I still think all of us are trying to learn as much as we can.
I don’t mean to evade the question. I am just trying to be realistic as possible and basically say, “I don’t know.” I sure hope we come to a time when everyone who is asymptomatic of everything is eligible to play, attend games, and live life again.
It is probably premature, but do you have any sense of how you might get these games back into the schedule at some point?
Dubas: No, I don’t. I hate when we have games postponed, and I understand why. I would just like us to play hockey as much as we can for a number of reasons. It is what we all do. It is what you all cover. It is what the players play and the fans come to see.
I hate when anything is postponed, but the reality now is that it postpones a trip for us, even though we have been out here for seven days. When it was the Calgary one-off postponement, that was looming as a tough one with our schedule to see where we would do a one-off game to Calgary. Now we know we are going to have Calgary, Vancouver, and Seattle away to make up.
I haven’t had any indication yet. I think that will be determined more by how the next couple of days go with the rest of the league and how we proceed. One thing that the league has shown over the last two years is that they can adapt, make different things happen, and find a way to get as much as we can in and get the playoffs and Stanley Cup awarded.