Don Sweeney discusses Bruins’ positive COVID-19 test, challenges involving Phase 2

(Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Just a few days removed from Bruins players returning to Warrior Ice Arena in Phase 2 of the NHL’s “Return to Play” plan, the organization received an unfortunate reminder of the many challenges awaiting hockey as it looks to see the 2019-29 season through. 

In a statement released Friday morning, the Bruins announced that an unnamed player — planning on attending these workouts at Warrior Ice Arena — tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. 

However, the player was then subsequently administered a pair of additional tests, both of which were negative. 

The statement adds that, while the player in question “remains asymptomatic … All Bruins players who have returned to this point during Phase 2 have now returned negative test results.”

Speaking shortly after via Zoom, Don Sweeney confirmed the positive test — noting that the player was asymptomatic when the first test was given ahead of the Phase 2 re-opening. The player did not have access to Warrior Ice Arena ahead of the test and will likely need to wait another week or so before getting an additional test to allow clearance back into team facilities. Sweeney added that other Bruins players “from a contact tracing that involves the original positive tested player” may also need to wait until next week before getting the green light to return. 

While multiple Senators and Avalanche players tested positive for COVID-19 months ago during the first outbreak of the virus in North America, both the Penguins and now Boston have reported recent cases since a plan was put in motion for Phase 2 — which involves voluntary, on-ice workouts at team facilities. 

The Penguins skater that tested positive for COVID-19 was not in Pittsburgh and has since recovered. 

For Sweeney and the rest of Boston’s management and coaching staff, Phase 2 is primarily a hands-off stretch — as they are unable to participate or observe these workouts for the time being. From a health and safety perspective, the Bruins defer to the guidelines already established both the NHL and state/local officials — with each club also appointing a Club Facility Hygiene Officer that is responsible for overseeing, implementing and ensuring compliance with all aspects of the Phase 2 protocol. 

Given that Sweeney and his staff are unable to view these informal skates, the Bruins' GM noted that he doesn't have a concrete list of what Bruins skaters are back on the ice and have been given the green light to access the rink once again.

"We don't have access right now to watch players, so we're not monitoring the number of players that are on the ice," Sweeney said. "I have a hard number of players that have voluntarily entered Phase 2. ...  We have a lot of players that are in the area and are going to access the facility. Again, some of the guys are still going through some of the protocols. ... Obviously, you can't mandate anybody to come back until a certain period of time based on their visas and some of the guys that have been overseas, but we're starting to have a little more conversation about mobilization and you'll start to see people start filter in."

As more rinks and venues open up across North America and abroad, Sweeney noted that players could already been in the process of shaking off the rust away from the scheduled work in Brighton. Some Bruins skaters in Europe (including David Pastrnak, Joakim Nordstorm, Anton Blidh, Jakub Zboril, Dan Vladar) have had access to ice, although Sweeney did not indicate which ones have officially been back out on the sheet.

While Friday's news is obviously not encouraging in terms of Boston's efforts of avoiding any complications regarding the ongoing pandemic, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly noted last month that “One single positive test (for COVID-19) … should not necessarily shut the operation down.”

Given that the safety protocols put in place prevented any infected individual from gaining access to Warrior Ice Arena, the expectations are for these informal workouts to continue without any complication.

While this current window helps serve as a buffer for teams and the NHL to deal with the complications that inevitably arise during the league's return, Sweeney added that allocating close to a month for these voluntary practices and off-ice workouts will also be essential in terms of giving players an extended ramp-up schedule.

"Player health is first and foremost, both from a pandemic overall standpoint, and the protocols that are associated with that," Sweeney said. "As far as return to play, as a former player, I know what it takes to knock the rust off and we're going to be cautious in that regard. I think the fact that Phase 2 is completely voluntary was really ideal in the sense of players have no pressure and no metrics on them. There's nothing other than just getting out to get their legs back under them. We'll start to introduce, you know, a skills coach, and a goalie coach, after seven days of the onset, just to give them some guidance on the ice.

"Again, nothing other than voluntary — if they're not there, they're not there. Off the ice, you're getting the muscles back into where they need to be. But again, it's more to support the progress as to what they would have entering into a normal training camp environment, so they're not overly taxed. The coaching staff has had conversations and will monitor each and every player as to how they're feeling and in training camp, you get the groin pulls, you get certain things that you find with muscle fatigue until they've gotten back up to full speed. So we're not going to jump in here, right into the deep end, we have to have a progression and there's enough time for players to get back up, if they use this period effectively and then the training camp period."