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Mumps outbreak festers in the ‘gross’ world of hockey

Hockey’s disgusting.

On the bench and in the locker room, the floor is covered with a nasty carpet of spit and snot. On the ice, players sweat on each other, bleed on each other. Spittle flies as they jostle and jaw. They shove the sweat-soaked palms of their gloves in each other’s faces, a tactic ironically named “facewashing.”

“When you really sit down and think about it, it’s pretty gross,” Blackhawks winger Patrick Sharp said.

So it’s not hard to see how the mumps outbreak in the NHL this season has spread from coast to coast. From Anaheim to St. Louis to Minnesota to New York, more than 20 players have been diagnosed with the rare viral infection that had been mostly eradicated by vaccinations until recently. On Saturday, the New Jersey Devils had their third and fourth players diagnosed with the mumps — Patrik Elias and Michael Ryder.

Warm, sweaty locker rooms are petri dishes for germs, and each time a new team steps into a tainted visitors’ room, they can take the virus with them.

“You see how it happens,” Hawks winger Ben Smith said. “We’re all in the same locker rooms, sometimes the same hotels. You see how it’s something that can spread.”

Through a combination of booster shots, aggressive quarantining and a little luck, the Hawks have managed to avoid the disease so far. They even managed to dodge the nasty stomach bug that swept through Chicago earlier this month. When Duncan Keith showed up to the rink sick on a game day on Dec. 16, he was immediately sent home and kept away from the team until he felt better, just in case it was the mumps.

Andrew Shaw said the Hawks have been particularly aggressive in that manner, especially with so many of the players’ little kids and babies hanging around the locker room these days.

“I think we’re all pretty clean human beings,” Shaw said. “We try to stay away from that kind of stuff.”

Well, clean as far as hockey players go. But watch when a player skates to the bench during a game and grabs a water bottle wherever he happens to be sitting. Or during a practice when a dozen or so green bottles are lined up along the top of the boards. They’re not looking for name tags. They just grab and go.

Mumps is spread through saliva and mucus, so having individual water bottles would be an easy way to cut down the risk. But hockey players are creatures of habit, and any kind of culture change happens at a glacial pace.

“I guess it’s kind of gross, but it doesn’t bother me,” Kris Versteeg said. “It’s the way the game is. You’re just sitting there spitting and sweating on other people and drinking other guys’ water bottles. In due time, that’ll probably all change. But right now, I’m fine with it.”

Joked Sharp: “As long as it’s not [Bryan] Bickell’s water bottle, I’ll grab anybody’s on the bench. Nothing changes.”

Versteeg said he focuses on eating right and keeping his immune system strong, while using plenty of hand sanitizer. Hawks general manager Stan Bowman said the team’s medical staff has been taking precautions against viral infections for years.

The mumps outbreak has been the biggest story in hockey this year, infecting everyone from minor-leaguers to Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby. But it’s not something the Hawks are dwelling on.

“We don’t really talk about it much,” Smith said. “We’re just hoping it doesn’t come into our room and holding our breath.”

Well, when they’re not spitting or blowing snot rockets, that is. Hey, that’s just hockey.

NOTE: Brad Richards (upper-body injury) will return to the lineup Monday against Nashville. Michal Rozsival (lower body) is questionable. Corey Crawford will start in goal.


Twitter: @marklazerus