In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

December 8, 2020

Physician recalls phenomenal experience working with Arizona Coyotes team in the COVID-19 bubble

By In the Loop
John Tokish, M.D.

John Tokish, M.D., spent 10 days in August living with the Arizona Coyotes in Edmonton, Alberta, as the team participated in the Stanley Cup playoffs. As head orthopedic physician, Dr. Tokish was in charge of keeping players healthy, while remaining isolated from the outside world during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs are something John Tokish, M.D., Orthopedic Surgery, won't soon forget. As the Arizona Coyotes' head orthopedic physician, he was embedded with the team in Edmonton, Alberta, one of two cities the NHL had designated as COVD-19 bubbles.

Players and staff in each bubble lived in relative isolation for the duration of their time in the tournament. All had to undergo strict COVID-19 protocols to keep the virus at bay and ensure a smooth competition.

In a conversation with the News Center, Dr. Tokish talked about his daily work with the Arizona Coyotes in the bubble, his surprise at the level of isolation he felt, how a visit to the gym tripped him up, and why his favorite moment was the team's win against Nashville.

How did you get involved with the Coyotes?

Mayo Clinic and the Coyotes have had a really strong partnership since 2017, when they wanted to discuss a comprehensive approach with Mayo. I had a long background in sports medicine, spending nearly 10 years as the head team physician at the U.S. Air Force Academy, where I was responsible for around 25 sports. I have done a significant amount of research in sports injuries and performance, and have a lot of common interests with the staff in terms of performance and health maintenance, as well as looking after musculoskeletal injuries.

Describe your life in the bubble with the Coyotes. How long did it last?

It was more isolated than even I thought it would be. Edmonton did a great job in controlling access, temperature checks, and they took the rules very seriously. We were tested every day and temperature-checked upon entry to any building. I once came from the gym, and my body temperature was a bit high, and they sent me to my room until it cooled off, which took several hours.

I was up there in the bubble for around 10 days, and can't imagine being in a bubble for weeks to months at a time. It was like being deployed in the military again, except with way better food and with no one shooting at me.

What were some things that stood out to you in terms of the logistics?

The people of Edmonton and our staff were great, and it was great to have full time to focus on winning. The series with Nashville was a phenomenal experience, and it was great to see the work our guys did pay off. 

There is much more to the process than meets the eye. The players have adjustments to make, but there were some seriously unsung heroes there. Our equipment guys, for example, had to transport practice and game material daily, not only within the bubble to the arena, but also to the off-site ice rink where we practiced. Because we shared that space with the other teams, all equipment needed to be set up and torn down after each and every practice and game. Our medical staff had to do the same with all medical equipment for every practice, sometimes setting up and tearing down a whole clinic several times in a day. It was truly impressive work.

How much did you work with the team? Were you on duty every day or mostly during games?

I was with them for all practices and all games. We would generally meet two hours before game time to go over any injuries that needed attention and ensure we had all logistics of care worked out. I would meet with the host medical staff to ensure how X-ray logistics worked out. We had one player with a suspected concussion and needed an MRI of his head, for example. The MRI was across town, so we had to figure out how to transport him in a mini bubble. For the days I was there, we were always on duty, but there was plenty of downtime to watch some great hockey, exercise and get caught up on some writing.

When you don't live in a bubble with a professional hockey team, how do you spend your days at Mayo?

I am the director of the Orthopedic Sports Medicine Fellowship at Mayo Clinic in Arizona, and I am responsible for the training of our fellows throughout their year here. In addition, I do a fair amount of research in the field of shoulder and sports surgery, including current projects on building an artificial tendon scaffold, as well as examining the effects of orthobiologics in the treatment of injuries. We have three kids and two dogs, so we spend a lot of time watching high school sports.

Are you a hockey fan yourself, or did you view this purely as a job assignment?

I absolutely am a hockey fan. In sports medicine circles, hockey is one of our very favorite sports to look after, because the guys are so great. The way the system works, most of these kids play many years out of the spotlight, so they are a humble bunch and you can't help but root for them.

What's your advice to others who might be presented with opportunities like this?

First, listen. We bring to the table a lot of experience and a skill set that can help the team. But there are some really professional team members that can teach you a lot more than you will teach them. Our athletic trainers, assistant coaches and physical therapists are gifted in diagnosing and rehabilitating these athletes, so bring a mindset to learn, and you will be rewarded with a much deeper understanding. 

Second, be prepared. You are not there as a fan, but as a physician. It is all fun until you are needed, and you must stay in a high state of vigilance. Constant preparation is key to doing this job well.

Third, communicate. It is a team sport, and the medical side is a team, as well. Communication with the players, trainers, coaches and therapists is essential to ensuring that athletes get back into the game optimally.

What is your favorite memory from Edmonton?

Beating Nashville was fantastic. Watching the team in the locker room after celebrating was an incredible experience. I enjoyed being at the practices, too. I normally don't have time to go to the weight room with our guys or watch them practice, so being able to be so close and hear the interactions between coaches, players and strength staff was really valuable for me.

You can catch a glimpse inside Dr. Tokish's life in the COVID-19 bubble in this video from the NHL.

The Arizona Coyotes' playoff run ended after the first round, when the team lost against the Colorado Avalanche in Game 5. Nevertheless, Dr. Tokish says he had a great experience and is looking forward to the new season.

"Go, Yotes! I'm excited about 2021," he says.

Tags: Dr. John Tokish, Orthopedic Surgery, Staff Stories

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