25 Investigates: Emails show 2 hockey players hid COVID symptoms to avoid missing tournament

Team’s coach reportedly was not aware players were sick before championship game

BOSTON — Two players from the elite Junior Bruins 18U team may have deliberately concealed COVID-19 symptoms before travelling to York, Pa for a championship game, according to emails reviewed by 25 Investigates.

The emails, which were obtained through a public records request and do not reveal players’ names, show efforts by the Hopkinton Board of Health to notify York, PA health officials that two Massachusetts players who participated in the high stakes tournament tested positive for COVID-19 upon returning home.

In one, Hopkinton health director Shaun McAuliffe writes: “…both individuals reported that they were symptomatic on Tuesday, March 2,” just one day before travelling to Pennsylvania. The email goes on to explain that the symptomatic players feared the team “would not have been eligible for the Championship,” had they tested positive beforehand. Therefore, the student players “took over the counter medications during their stay to mitigate the symptoms,” according to the emails.

The Junior Bruins faced off against five teams that weekend and ultimately went on to win the national championship.

The US Premier Hockey League (USPHL) Midget Championship was held from March 4 to 7 at the York Ice Arena and drew hundreds of elite high school-aged players from New York, Pennsylvania, Maine, Massachusetts and New Jersey. The Marlborough-based Junior Bruins and two other MA youth hockey teams participated in the event.

25 Investigates contacted health departments in all five states as well as health officials in York, PA and several MetroWest communities to see if transmission linked to the tournament had occurred. Health departments in NJ and ME said they were not aware of COVID clusters linked to the York game. Pennsylvania’s state health department said they “cannot provide details on specific cases, clusters of cases, or outbreaks to protect privacy of individuals under the Disease Prevention and Control Law.” Meanwhile, the York health board said it was not aware of spread in that city. New York’s department of health did not respond by our deadline. Here in Massachusetts, only Framingham confirmed an investigation into potential exposures.

“If any of the participants had or displayed any signs or symptoms while they were at the tournament, they were supposed to be removed,” McAuliffe told 25 Investigates’ Ted Daniel. “And in the time of COVID, this team would have been put into quarantine.”

McAuliffe slapped the Junior Bruins with a $2,100 fine based on 7 alleged violations of state COVID regulations. According to the cease and desist order reviewed by 25 Investigates, the team failed to ensure “participants show no signs of symptoms of COVID-19 for 14 days,” “parents/guardians are not transporting athletes that are not immediate family members,” and provide “evidence that quarantine notifications were sent to tournament participants,” among other violations.

Chris Masters, who owns the Junior Bruins organization, told 25 Investigates his team has carefully followed the state COVID regulations throughout the pandemic and believes the fine is excessive.

“To be honest, I don’t think anyone should be taking the hit. I don’t think the players should. I don’t. You’re going to fine a kid for making a poor decision?” he said.

According to Masters, the team would normally travel together by bus but because of COVID restrictions players either drove on their own or carpooled. He added that his team did not have access to locker room and the coach was unaware that any of the players were sick. Furthermore, he says, players filled out an attestation form or checklist of symptoms prior to hitting the ice rink and were asked, but not required, to get temperature checks before entering the York Ice Arena.

“We understand that the health department is doing their job, and they have a job to do. Again, I think it’s much ado about nothing,” said Masters. “I think the onus really lies, in this situation, on these players who kept some information from the coach.”

It’s not uncommon for elite athletes to downplay injury or illness to avoid being sidelined, says medical ethicist Art Caplan, who teaches Bioethics at New York University. When it comes to multi-state sports tournaments, he said, testing is the best way to reduce risk.

“We should be looking for negative tests right before you go into competition. It isn’t to penalize the athlete, it isn’t even really just to protect the athlete, it’s to protect others, particularly more vulnerable people,” said Caplan.

The Junior Bruins say they plan to appeal the $2,100 fine. The team’s owner told 25 Investigates none of the other players tested positive.

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