In an object lesson of the difficulties of playing lower-level sports during a pandemic, two Triangle junior hockey teams may have spread COVID-19 to their Atlanta-area opponents last weekend.
The Junior Hurricanes Premier and Elite, teams for prospective college-bound players aged 16-20, traveled to Marietta, Ga., for games last Saturday and Sunday. Several players and staff tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of the trip and were left at home, but players and staff who tested negative were allowed to travel and play.
By Monday, more players on the Junior Hurricanes teams tested positive. At least 19 of their opponents with the Atlanta Mad Hatters have since tested positive as well, according to parents there.
Junior Hurricanes CEO Jocelyn Langlois said the team followed guidelines established by the United States Premier Hockey League, which require players and staff to be tested before overnight trips. That’s when the positive tests turned up last Friday.
“We contacted the league as soon as we have some positives. We contacted Atlanta as well as their owner,” Langlois said. “We had plenty of players available. We’re learning through this. We all felt with the negative tests we were good to go, so obviously we went and played. We’re navigating through this.”
Many other sports and leagues require quarantines for anyone in close contact to someone who tests positive for COVID-19. The ACC, for example, requires 14-day quarantines for close contacts, which has resulted in the postponement of several football games.
“We’re very concerned about the nature of the USPHL’s protocols,” said one parent, who asked for anonymity to protect their minor child’s identity. “Because if this kind of superspreader event can happen with these protocols in place and everyone following the protocols, perhaps the protocols need to be reexamined.”
Efforts to reach USPHL commissioner Richard Gallant for comment were unsuccessful.
The Junior Hurricanes have canceled all team activities through at least Thursday. The Mad Hatters have also shut down their programs and canceled next weekend’s games in Florida while Cobb and Douglas Public Health investigates. Wake County Human Services only publicly discloses COVID-19 clusters in schools, child-care facilities and congregate-living settings, but Langlois said he had been in contact with the county.
Karen Fishman, the mother of a player from Georgia who plays on the Junior Hurricanes Elite team, posted on Facebook that 17 players and staff tested positive before the trip. Her son tested negative, played in two games and subsequently tested positive on Monday. Efforts to reach Fishman for further comment were unsuccessful.
“We had a few, when they came back, they tested positive,” Langlois said. “That’s a timeline that we’re working on with the rink. I think it was a lesson learned with all of us how it works. We’ve had meetings with the league.”
Sergei Kouzimne, whose son plays for the Mad Hatters, said testing of their teams was expected to be completed Friday.
“That team is aware about positive cases in Carolina juniors and has started full testing. … I (am) satisfied with (the Mad Hatters’) management reaction on events and have no major concerns,” Kouzimne wrote in a text message.
Mad Hatters managing partner Raj Kalra said Saturday: “Our situation is that we are fine, sir.”
The Junior Hurricanes junior-hockey teams, known until 2019 as the Carolina Eagles program, share a name with the Junior Hurricanes youth organization but operate on a highly competitive, pay-to-play level for older players. The NHL Hurricanes, who financially support the youth organization, allow the junior teams to use the name, but have no other association.
Only 27 of the 52 players listed on the two rosters are from North Carolina, with players from as far away as Massachusetts, Florida, Alaska, Alberta and even Europe who stay with local families during the season while many attend high school or take college classes.
“We try to create our own bubble,” Langlois said. “We do have 50 players at the junior level. Everybody’s been following everything to a T. Nobody went to parties. There’s been rumors, but nobody went to any parties.”
Premier is the second level of competition and Elite is the third in the USPHL, a massive collection of junior teams that includes more than 100 teams from across the country. There are also Premier and Elite teams in Charlotte, South Carolina and Virginia.
Langlois said he still hopes his teams will be able to play their first home games Oct. 10-11 at the Wake Competition Center in Morrisville.