NHL needs heightened vigilance with mumps

Dr. Dharmesh Vyas spoke to the media about Sidney Crosby and how the rest of the team is protected against the mumps.

Mumps is a funny-sounding name.

Depending on your sense of humour, the sight of the badly swollen glands on the right side of Sidney Crosby’s face might also have elicited a few chuckles as well.

But the outbreak that has put NHL teams on high alert is no laughing matter.

Crosby is the 13th player to be diagnosed with the viral disease and New York Rangers centre Derick Brassard followed him soon after. They aren’t likely to be the last. Since mumps is spread through saliva or mucus — ie. talking, coughing, sneezing, the use of a water bottle — an NHL dressing room is a difficult place to completely safeguard from it.


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That is why there is a need for heightened vigilance within the hockey world.

What happened with Crosby can't be repeated. The Penguins captain unwittingly skated with teammates on Friday morning and spoke with reporters afterwards -- all while infected.

It wasn't out of disregard, as team doctor Dharmesh Vyas and general manger Jim Rutherford detailed during a Sunday morning press conference, but it should serve as a cautionary case. Crosby had been closely monitored by the Penguins since suffering a gland injury on Nov. 29 and only started to show symptoms once it was too late (a not-uncommon occurrence).

"It came as a bit of a surprise," Vyash told reporters in Pittsburgh.

Once you start looking at the potential long-term health problems caused by mumps it quickly becomes clear why the NHL is so anxious to get it under control. There is no treatment for the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it can cause sterility in men and be of particular danger to pregnant women.

Most of the NHL players affected by it had previously been immunized.

Crosby and two others -- Anaheim Ducks star Corey Perry and Minnesota Wild defenceman Ryan Suter -- received booster shots prior to travelling to the Sochi Olympics this year.

What is clear in the case of the Penguins is that there was a lot of internal discussion about Crosby's condition. It wasn't until Saturday night that a test showed a positive result for mumps.

"We can only go by the recommendation from the medical people," said Rutherford. "We're not going to overrule them on anything and quite frankly, that decision (to skate Friday) was approved, that he could be here and his condition worsened after the skate and that's when I got the call from Dr. Vyas."

Cases of the mumps have turned up in five dressing rooms around the league: Anaheim, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers.

A doctor for the Toronto Maple Leafs sent special advisor Cliff Fletcher home from the Air Canada Centre on Saturday morning after he complained of a sore throat. Fletcher was said to be feeling better Sunday and is "unlikely" to have mumps, according to a team spokesman, but he will be kept away as a precaution.

Like most teams around the NHL, the Leafs have recently inoculated their players with booster shots.

"Well I just got my shot today," coach Randy Carlyle said before Sunday's game against Los Angeles. "They dragged me in, I was the last one. I thought that I had (been vaccinated) 58 years ago so I didn't think I'd need another one but I guess there's a new strain out that they better look after us."

The NHL has advised its member clubs about ways to limit the spread of the virus and the NHL Players' Association is monitoring the situation as well. Dressing rooms are being sterilized and extra care is being taken with water bottles and towels.

However, the best defence of all is awareness and caution.

Health is more important than hockey and anyone who suspects that they've been infected needs to stay away from the rink.