CALGARY - The Alberta government has launched an investigation into how members of the Calgary Flames and their families scored swine flu shots at a special clinic as thousands of people waited in line for the vaccine or were turned away.
Alberta Health Minister Ron Liepert said he wants to know if the shots were "inappropriately diverted" to the hockey players while other Albertans stood in line for hours.
"There is only one supplier in the province and that's us," he said. "They would only be diverted with the approval of the chief medical officer of health."
Dr. Andre Corriveau, Alberta's chief medical health officer, said he first learned about the issue through the news media Tuesday and declined to comment due to the investigation.
Ken King, president of the NHL club, said the players and their families received their shots on Friday at a private location. He said the organization contacted Alberta Health Services and requested the clinic based on recommendations from team doctors, the NHL and provincial guidelines in place at the time.
"We thought that we were working within a protocol that Alberta Health Services thought was appropriate," he said.
Players are at a high risk of spreading the virus "due to the fact that they have frequent physical contact, onerous domestic and cross-border travel, extreme exertion and, frankly, are in very close contact with other teams," he said Tuesday.
Part of the consideration was that players are frequently recognized and could have caused a stir at a mass clinic, he said.
"The whole notion of some sort of a sideshow at these clinics, thereby also creating, perhaps, longer lineups and other issues and maybe more complications for other people."
The revelation is one more hit for the Alberta government, which is facing mounting criticism for the way it has managed its swine flu vaccination program.
Initially, anyone who came to one of the mass clinics set up across the province was vaccinated. But that led to huge lineups and the clinics have been closed since the weekend so the plan could be rejigged to focus on high-risk patients.
Starting Thursday, only children between the ages of six months and under five years will be eligible to get the vaccine, followed by pregnant women.
Opposition politicians charged the hockey players were given special treatment because of their star status.
"It's a failure of leadership that we are providing vaccines willy-nilly to whoever has money, to whoever has access, when cancer patients, when chronic lung patients, when pregnant women and their children can't get it," said Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann.
"It's a violation of the basic principles of public health care."
NDP Leader Brian Mason accused the government of paying more attention to its pocketbooks than to Albertans who could die without the vaccine.
"The Calgary Flames owners have an investment to protect and together have donated more than $44,000 to the Progressive Conservative Party since 2004," Mason told the legislature.
"Why has the premier allowed millionaire friends of this PC government to receive preferential treatment over vulnerable Albertans like pregnant women and children under five?"
King said at the time the Flames requested the clinic, many Albertans who had no special risk factors were being vaccinated. He said he never would have expected such treatment under the government's new stricter guidelines.
"We wouldn't do it today because the vaccine wouldn't be available today," he said.
"We went at a time that hundreds of thousands of other Albertans of all risk profiles were getting it, and thought we were within scope.
"Clearly that didn't sit well."
Premier Ed Stelmach said Alberta Health Services will have a full report "very shortly."
In Edmonton, Allan Watt, the Oilers' vice-president of communications, said the team is keeping on top of the players' health but has not made any H1N1 vaccination arrangements for them.
"If a player wants to get a shot he can go to a clinic just like any other person," said Watt.
The NHL said last week that at least three players - forward Quintin Laing of the Washington Capitals, Edmonton Oilers defenceman Ladislav Smid and Colorado Avalanche goalie Peter Budaj - had been diagnosed with H1N1.
The league said it had "implemented no specific 'contingency plans' at this point in time" but would be prepared to do so should it become necessary.
-With files from Jim Macdonald in Edmonton.