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Hockey Mumps is the word as NHL players face off against league epidemic

In this Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014 file photo, Anaheim Ducks' Corey Perry looks during warm ups before an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers in Philadelphia. Multiple players on multiple teams across the country have come down with the mumps that has spread from coast to coast, Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014.

Tom Mihalek/AP

Once mumps invades a professional sports dressing room, it finds a fertile breeding ground and the NHL is finding that it is not easy to get rid of.

Multiple players on multiple teams from coast to coast have come down with the mumps, an illness more typically associated with children.

It started in Anaheim and plagued the Ducks, who had three players affected. The Minnesota Wild were next, with five victims. Tanner Glass of the New York Rangers then came down with it, and as recently as Wednesday, the New Jersey Devils had two players turn up sick.

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The Ducks hosted the Wild in mid-October, New Jersey and the Rangers played each other a few days later and Minnesota visited the Rangers not long after that before facing the Devils in mid-November.

"You see the hits that they have, and sometimes the spraying of saliva," said Dr. Judith Aberg, chief of the infectious diseases division at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. "I think they are high risk. I am surprised we haven't actually seen this before."

The illness isn't just hitting hockey players, of course. Students on college campuses have also recently fallen victim in another close environment that promotes spreading of the very contagious virus.

"It is relatively uncommon since the vaccine was licensed in the early 1960s, but this year we've actually had more cases," Aberg said. "In 2013, we had less than 500 cases, and already this year we're looking at about 1,000 cases in the United States. One person is expected to infect 10 others."

Millions are vaccinated at a young age, but Aberg said the immunity can wane with age and "10 to 20 per cent of individuals who have been vaccinated may not have full protection."

The NHL and the players' association have provided information to teams and players on ways to protect themselves against the mumps. Vaccination decisions for any disease are made by club medical staffs and the players themselves. The Rangers quickly moved to give boosters to players, and other teams have done the same. The Ducks cleaned and sterilized their entire operation following the outbreak that hit Corey Perry and others.

"Simple coughing and sneezing and getting those respiratory droplets on each other can cause the spread of mumps," Aberg said. "The problem is that it is contagious before you have symptoms. That's where it gets tricky because you don't know you're going to come down with the mumps, and you're contagious. Then you are contagious for five days or so after you have symptoms."

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The illness even felled Minnesota iron man defenceman Ryan Suter, the rare American-born player to be affected.

Suter, who hadn't missed a game since joining the Wild in 2012, led the NHL in ice time each of the past two seasons.

"I probably wash my hands more than anybody," he said. "I go out of the way to make sure I'm a clean guy. So for me to get it, it stunk. I always tell these guys, 'You've got to be mentally strong and you'll never get sick.' So they're all giving me a hard time."

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