Opinion | Canada playing Russia in masks seemed like an ad hoc decision to keep things moving at Beijing Olympics

BEIJING Above all it was a true pandemic sporting event, and a reflection of the banal strangeness of these Games. Canada and Russia played an Olympic hockey game, and that’s normal. They played in a largely empty arena, under strange circumstances. That was mostly normal these days, too. There were disruptions. Well, welcome to the pandemic.

But after Canada and Russia played a game in masks on one of the biggest stages in sports, it became a true Beijing Olympics story. There was improvisational decision-making, athletes who endure the challenges of the moment, and a big bundle of secrecy. The truth came out, of course, and it hinted at some of the pressures driving the Games.

“Russia’s (COVID test) results from this morning weren’t back in yet,” Canadian forward Natalie Spooner told reporters after the game. “I know in the past few days they’ve had a few positives and we just wanted to make sure their results came back, and we were safe to play.”

oh Canada and Russia warmed up, and Canada pulled first-line winger Emily Clark from the lineup due to an inconclusive test that only rose once she was on the ice. After a break, the Russians came back out to start the game and lined up on their blue line, and Canada didn’t show. Canada head coach Troy Ryan came out to tell the officials there would be a delay. It lasted an hour. The players played in masks.

Except Ryan said the decision to wear masks was made before Clark was pulled, so why was there a one-hour delay after she left the ice? Waiting for the tests, one supposes, but at some point they decided to proceed without them, under an agreement to wear masks that had been agreed to at least 90 minutes before. Ryan claimed he didn’t know why the game had been delayed or why the teams chose to play in masks, which if true seems like truly aggressive incuriosity. He said team general manager Gina Kingsbury told him about the delay; Kingsbury was in the mixed zone but declined to speak to reporters. The IIHF released a statement so banal they could serve it for lunch in the main cafeteria here.

“Out of caution and concern for the health and safety of the players, the IIHF agreed with the participating teams to play the game with masks on,” said the IIHF statement.

Well, that clears things up. Playing a team game in masks does not seem to be a part of the IOCs playbook for athletes: they wouldn’t be close contacts until a positive case came back, but this also seemed like an ad hoc decision to keep things moving. It’s not clear this was considered as a protocol at all, until it was. There is little extra space in the hockey schedule: there are also no morning games, which makes sense if teams are tested in the morning. Canada tests once daily, like other participants at the Games; Russia, due to the recent outbreak, has been tested twice daily. This sure seemed like a decision to push through, maybe cross a few fingers, maybe make up some rules.

It led to real questions. Why did Canada warm up without knowing whether Russia, which had one of the biggest COVID outbreaks of these Games, had passed their daily COVID tests? How was Clark’s test only deemed inconclusive once she had gotten to the rink, dressed and taken the ice for warmup? It was clear that Canada refused to play unless both teams wore the masks, and that Russia got their tests back before the third period, which allowed them and the officials to discard their masks. Canada, on the other hand, did not. That makes sense, if you know everyone is negative. But nobody in authority would just say it.

“Coaching staff just told us that for the third period we were good to go without masks,” said Russian forward Alexandra Vafina. “So we just took them off.”

“I think that’s two programs making two decisions,” said Ryan. “It was as simple as we worked for 40 (minutes), let’s wait for the extra 20, If health and safety is a concern.”

But Team Canada left Ryan out to dry, answering questions that he deliberately did not have the answers to, after a game that went according to plan. Canada outshot Russia 21-2 in the second period, phenom Sarah Fillier scored her fifth goal in three games by banking it off a skate, Canada won 6-1. Despite the masks, you could still tell what kind of team they were. Canada actually trained in medical masks in December and after Christmas, to make sure they were extra safe when players were visiting family or friends around the holidays. In a way, KN95s were an improvement.

“I mean, we never actually wore (KN95s),” said Spooner. “We always wear the blue (medical masks) before. So that was a little bit of a change, but this is actually much better because it doesn’t just suck into your mouth. So in that sense, I guess it was better.” Forward Brianne Jenner said the key to wearing a mask while playing was, “be in shape.”

“They’re just great with handling their adversity. I don’t think it impacted them that much negatively,” said Ryan.

You can take this game as a symbol of our still-fractious pandemic times, if you want: if two Olympic hockey teams can play in masks, you can probably keep wearing one to the grocery store. Caution is still warranted at these weirdo Games: as fewer flights come in the daily case count has dipped into low double digits, but the possibility of an outbreak that sidelines an individual athlete or a chunk of a team remains. Team Canada reported zero COVID cases Sunday evening among the 492 athletes, but Russia’s outbreak was significant. Some of this is luck, and some skill.

That goes for hockey, too. This game must have been hardest on the Russian team, playing a Canadian team that hardly lets opponents take a breath. Canada should try playing in blindfolds next.

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