It was on American Thanksgiving, the last Thursday of November. The New York Rangers were on the road to play the Philadelphia Flyers, and celebrated the holiday with a team dinner. Afterward, Tanner Glass – a well-spoken, 31-year-old Dartmouth grad – went back to his hotel room and was reading when he felt some tenderness under his right ear.
At first, Glass didn't think much of it, because he – like a lot of NHL players – occasionally gets hit in the face. It's an occupational hazard. But then, another hour went by and Glass could feel swelling develop under his left ear, too, and that set off the alarm bells. He couldn't sleep because of the soreness on the side of his face, so at midnight, not wanting to rouse the team's training staff, he went down to the hotel's front desk and cadged a couple of Advil.
"In the morning, I woke up and both sides of my face were getting pretty swollen around my ears," Glass said. "Knowing the mumps were going around, I had a pretty good idea of what it was right away."
Glass is one of the 15 NHL players who have officially been diagnosed with the mumps – the Pittsburgh Penguins confirmed Tuesday that forward Beau Bennett also has the illness. Altogether, players on five teams have had the disease, including Glass's New York teammate, centre Derick Brassard, who left the team Sunday in Edmonton and is now at home in quarantine.
About a week ago, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault deployed Brassard against Sidney Crosby in a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and speculated that maybe that's where the virus was transmitted – Crosby being the highest-profile player infected.
Most players on most teams have had booster shots since the outbreak occurred, but that does not guarantee them full immunity since the incubation period for the disease can last up to four weeks.
"You kind of learn more about it all the time," said Glass, who is back with the Rangers and was available to play in Tuesday night's game against the Calgary Flames. "People can be carriers without actually having symptoms. The way it's passed is through bodily fluids, so if it gets out there in our population of hockey players, it's pretty easy to conduct it between players. You're hitting, spit's flying, sweat's flying, guys are coughing, sneezing, sharing the same water bottles. Once it's in the population, it's easy to contract."
Glass hadn't had mumps as a child, but he was vaccinated against the disease.
"The hardest part was the quarantine – just being alone," Glass said. "You can't see your family. You can't see your friends. My parents were in town too, so [it was] tough timing that way. It was like a bad flu for three days – achy, cold and hot, I couldn't really eat because the saliva glands are swollen, so every time you produced saliva, it was pretty painful."
The illness physically depletes a person, so once he'd been cleared of all symptoms, the challenge for Glass was getting his strength back to play.
"You're flat on your back for five days," Glass said. "We're so used to being go-go-go all the time. It was tough, and I still don't feel like I have the same jump I had before the sickness. It's hard because you don't want to push too hard conditioning-wise or training-wise – you're coming off an illness, not an injury. An injury is sometimes better because you can work, work, work and get back in shape and you feel great, but this is a little different. It's a challenge that way, but that's part of being a professional athlete."
Now that he's better, the detective in Glass was interested in figuring out how he may have contracted the disease, but realizes it's probably a hopeless case.
The Anaheim Ducks' Corey Perry was the first player officially diagnosed with the illness, but the initial hint of a mumps outbreak came from St. Louis, where two Blues – Jori Lehtera and Joakim Lindstrom – missed time earlier this season with what the team called a bacterial infection. The Rangers played the Blues in early November – and both St. Louis and the Minnesota Wild had been through Anaheim, where there'd been a mumps outbreak in local high schools. Of the NHL's confirmed mumps cases, five were players on the Wild and four were on the Ducks.
"You look back and see which teams you're playing against," Glass said. "I think it's been in St. Louis's locker room, even though they haven't come out and said it. Even if you're vaccinated, you can pick it up and not show symptoms and pass it on. Once it's in the population, it's pretty hard to check who Patient Zero is – or who gave it to you."