Off-ice happenings have overshadowed on-ice news so far in the 2021 Western Hockey League season for the Victoria Royals.
The Royals’ scheduled games Thursday against the Kamloops Blazers and tonight against the Kelowna Rockets were postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak among four Rockets players and three staff members.
Team activities for the Rockets have been suspended for a minimum of 14 days through April 14, meaning nine postponed games for Kelowna.
The Victoria (0-3) versus Kamloops game was to be played in Kelowna and was postponed Thursday morning out of an abundance of caution. Kamloops was instead instructed to stay home and play Prince George as the Blazers (3-0) defeated the Cougars (1-2) by a 6-1 count. The Kamloops- Victoria game in Kelowna has been rescheduled to tonight.
(There have been no known COVID-19 player deaths caused by games in organized sports).
Helping keep track of the COVID-19 situation in the WHL is the world’s first diagnostic artificial intelligence app created to detect the virus. Eight WHL teams are part of the trial, including the Royals and Rockets. Players are being tested once a week using the current polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method. The new Light AI diagnostic test is run concurrently to the PCR testing to compare for the accuracy of Light AI’s innovative new technology.
The Light AI diagnostic test is non-invasive. The players download the Light AI app to their smartphones and follow the directions that enable the phone’s camera function to take an image of the players’ oral cavity. The image is automatically uploaded to Light AI’s cloud-based server, where an artificial intelligence algorithm analyzes it for signs of COVID-19. Results are sent back to the players, along with instructions in the case of a positive test result.
“The [system] has a high-negative predictive value,” said Peter Whitehead, founder and CEO of Vancouver-based Light AI. “If showing negative, there is only a 1.4 percent chance it is positive.”
In other words, a negative test is 98.6 percent accurate.
“It’s cool to be part of this [trial],” said Royals captain Tarun Fizer.
“It’s next level stuff. Who knows where technology will take us to.”
Whitehead said he has been inventing things since he was a kid in Calgary. The technology was first intended to identify strep throat but was repurposed to COVID-19 after the pandemic broke out. Whitehead explained why he chose the WHL as the first setting in which to test this technology.
“Hockey is the biggest sport in this country and we knew the WHL was opening up,” said Whitehead, who added he loves the NHL’s Canucks, but that his hometown Flames will always have a place in his heart.
His app could go from this small WHL springboard, which includes the Royals, to potentially massive application globally.
“There are 4.5 billion smartphones in the world with which to conduct this test and people globally could do it inexpensively within four seconds of image capture,” said Whitehead, by phone.
“We are in the process of applying for emergency usage authorization in the U.S. [Then] we would start the process of introducing it through Google, Amazon and Microsoft. What a way it would be to showcase a Canadian idea.”
Whitehead noted the implication for use in sports arenas and stadiums, airports, movie theatres, concert halls and restaurants is self-evident.
“We hope our trial with the WHL validates this and confirms our confidence in the use of advanced diagnostic technologies that utilize AI,” he said.
Each of the five WHL B.C. Division teams was set to play 24 games in the abbreviated season taking place in the Kelowna and Kamloops hubs. The Royals are bubbled in a Kelowna hotel and the Cougars and Vancouver Giants in Kamloops hotels. The Rockets and Blazers players are staying with their respective billet families in Kelowna and Kamloops.
Victoria is scheduled to play Prince George on Tuesday in Kamloops and the Giants on Wednesday in Kelowna. The league confirmed those games will go ahead as planned.