When the Canadian women’s hockey team emerged with respirator masks in a Feb. 7 game against their Russian rivals, it became the first time masks were used in international hockey to prevent COVID-19 virus transmission.
In her postgame scrum, Team Canada forward Rebecca Johnston said, “We wanted to make sure that everyone that was participating was healthy and making sure we’re lowering the risk, so we just decided to wear a mask and delay the game just a little bit so that we could get organized and just put masks on and it’d be safe.”
Finland followed suit in its game against Russia, who were competing as the Russian Olympic Committee or ROC. The Fins donned blue surgical-style masks as the virus crept into the Beijing 2022 Olympic bubble.
Researchers around the world were watching closely, including Dr. Ilari Kuitunen, a Finnish medical doctor with a PhD in epidemiology. His team studied the men’s Finnish U-20 hockey league in September 2020, six months into the pandemic.
“We noticed from the local news that the whole team was set to quarantine because of infections in the team and then we decided to follow the chain of events and already in two days found out that there were infections in the opposite team as well.”
Indeed, Kuitunen and his co-authors published a study suggesting that a single asymptomatic positive COVID-19 case on one hockey team was directly responsible for 49 positive tests and quarantining of six teams. This rapid spread wasn’t helped by the fact that this study was done before the implementation of the vaccine
Kuitunen hypothesized that the cold dry air in hockey rinks could potentially increase the risk of virus transmission as aerosols can travel a greater distance. But the team’s long bus rides were also noted as a possible method of transmission.
At the time, international sports authorities feared masking would reduce athletic performance. But Kuitunen notes that the 2020 Tour de France’s masking mandate proved this fear wrong.
Vaccines arrived and research into virus transmission during hockey games continued.
Fast forward to Beijing 2022 and the confusion over COVID testing at the Canada-ROC game. This mess delayed the women’s hockey matchup for over an hour before players donned masks and Canada won 6-1. ROC forward Alexandra Vafina told reporters post-game, “Against Canada with the mask on? It was an experience.”
“It’s not enough oxygen,” Vafina said. “So for us in the first period was pretty hard but we adjusted to that.”
Research shows little effect on performance
Back in Canada, researcher Keely Shaw followed the performance of the masked women’s hockey team with great interest both as an athlete and researcher. She won a bronze medal in the women’s C4 3,000m individual pursuit at the 2020 Paralympic Games and is currently a PhD student at the University of Saskatchewan’s college of kinesiology.
Shaw is a co-author of a paper studying the effects face masks can have on young hockey players’ performance. In lab and skating studies, she evaluated blood and muscle oxygen levels of hockey players aged nine to 14.
Shaw’s research specifically studied male and female hockey players and found no direct impact on their performance on the ice with a surgical mask.
“Face masks might not be the most comfortable, but there is no reason from a safety or a performance perspective that would suggest one shouldn’t wear one.”
She did find her female test subjects felt the mask was a greater hindrance than the males. In fact, females’ oxygen levels were lower in the first rounds of the test while males’ were lower at the end.
“I’m sure no athlete had plans to wear a mask while competing on the world’s biggest stage, but if I were an athlete in Beijing and was given the option between wearing a mask or either not competing or potentially getting sick, I’d take the mask any day,” said Shaw speaking from Saskatoon.
Grateful to compete
At Mount Royal University in Calgary, the head coach of their women’s hockey team, Scott Rivett, shared Shaw’s sentiments.
“It’s the Olympics, you got to do what you got to do to play. Like, I think that you know, the reality is, any time we get an opportunity to compete, I think we’re all super grateful right now. And if there’s things we’ve got to do in order to be able to play, then I think we’re all prepared to do it.”
The uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 transmission and hockey has extended far beyond the Olympics. Rivett has had to deal with the reality of masks for almost two years.
“We had to wear masks basically all last year. We never had to wear them in games, it was always practices. The girls kind of got used to it. Not ideal, but certainly manageable,” said Rivett, whose team finished the regular season atop the Canada West standings, three wins above the second place University of British Columbia Thunderbirds.
Transmission during play
The prospects surrounding the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission during play have been researched worldwide. Similar to Kuitunen’s study, a study by Alison Krug published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine tracked 148 youth hockey players in Virginia Beach between the ages of six over an 18-week study period.
Over the course of this study, masks were not worn by players on the ice. They only had to adhere to the community guidelines including off-ice masking.
After 23,788 hours of combined athlete exposure, and despite COVID-19 prevalence in the community surrounding these athletes, Krug found, “no evidence of onward transmission between athletes was found after implementing the enhanced protocols.”
“Transmission appears to be more likely in congested indoor areas involving adults than on the ice during play,” said Krug.
Though masking and the spread of COVID are obstacles, athletes often have the competitive nature to rise to the challenge. Carrie Scherzer has a PhD in Psychology from the University of Arizona and has multiple papers published on sports psychology.
“The N95 [masks] stick out a bit, so it would definitely affect the field of vision a little bit. But the anxiety related to playing players who you know could give you COVID when they run into the boards when you’re fighting for the puck, that would also have an impact on their vision. We know that as athletes get more anxious, their field of vision narrows, they get more of that tunnel vision.”
Scherzer adds that athletes have largely gotten used to wearing masks over the last year and a half and that most of them would deal with the annoyance to protect their long-term safety,“I think wearing the masks was the only decision to make,” she said.
“Do you want to end up sitting out your first Olympics because you got COVID on the ice? So if your choices are maybe getting COVID or wearing a mask for a hockey game, you’re like ‘mask please,’” she added.
A year and a half after Kuitunen conducted the original study, the landscape surrounding COVID-19 has changed dramatically. Some countries have no restrictions while others are more locked down. Culturally, sports are important and are finally beginning to pick up again globally. Kuitunen still urges people to stay vigilant.
“At the moment this data should be remembered, as we have the possibility of team-to-team transmission. Continuous testing, vaccinations and minimizing the contacts outside the team are the crucial parts. But as the Omicron (COVID-19 variant) seems to be milder, hopefully, the future looks brighter and we could return to normal in all levels of sports.”