BY JOHN WAWROW, AP Hockey writer
Sabers trainer Ralph Krueger marked his return to training on Sunday with an optimistic but cautionary message after a 10-day battle with what he described as “moderate” symptoms of COVID-19.
“Definitely a time to see how deadly this COVID is,” said 61-year-old Kruger as he expressed his relief that his wife was not infected. “I feel pretty good, but obviously drawn from the experience.”
The first month of the NHL’s pandemic-shortened season was bumpy. The Sabers are among eight teams that have suspended their season and 35 games have been postponed. From January 13th to Saturday, 120 players from 26 of 31 teams spent at least one day on the COVID-19 list. Some tested positive, others were identified as close contacts, and some had to be quarantined after traveling from another country.
Buffalo is expected to return from a 15-day hiatus and host the New York Islanders on Monday. The Colorado Avalanche resumed play in Vegas on Sunday. Minnesota and New Jersey are expected to return on Tuesday while the Philadelphia Flyers, who currently have seven players on the NHL COVID-19 list, are on hold until Thursday at least.
The NHL completed last season’s playoffs in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta. Without these, outbreaks were considered inevitable.
“Unfortunately, this is the new normal,” said Mark Stone, Golden Knights forward. “I think you’re a little naive to think we’d go through a whole season without a guy testing positive. I think now we’re learning as a group and as a league. “
The NBA had a three-week lead over the NHL, and after an initial number of postponements and more than 20 positive cases, the NBA has only had 13 players tested positive since the NHL began.
It is questionable how quickly the NHL addressed concerns before improving its safety protocols twice in the past two weeks, including introducing quick matchday tests for players, staff and on-ice officials.
The turning point coincided with the Sabers hosting New Jersey for a two-game streak on January 30th and 31st, when the league allowed game two after two players were put on the COVID-19 roster after Buffalos 4- Devils had been inducted to win 3 shootout.
New Jersey, which peaked with 19 players on the list, had its season suspended a day later. The Sabers then paused up to nine players at a time, plus Kruger.
The NHL had 22 players on its COVID-19 list as of January 30, and that number climbed to a season high of 59 on Friday. The number fell to 45 on Saturday, the first decline since January 29.
Krueger questioned the NHL’s decision to move on to the second game in the Sabers Devils series, calling it “a tough weekend,” but praised the league for how it has reacted since then.
“I am glad that the NHL has learned as constructively as possible from the experiences we have had,” said Krueger. “So it seems to be worth it.”
Sabers striker Taylor Hall believes the league has learned from what happened.
“This is the first time everyone is going through this and there will be bugs that aren’t intentional,” said Hall, who tested positive but was asymptomatic while spending 10 days in isolation before being cleared on Saturday. “We’re all trying our best here. And I don’t think anyone deserves any more guilt than anyone else. “
The decision to add quick tests came after Vegas striker Tomas Nosek was allowed to play the first two periods against Anaheim on Tuesday before being drawn on a positive test.
Rapid tests deliver the results within half an hour and complement the daily PCR tests that are already taking place. PCR tests, while more accurate, require a turnaround time of 12 to 24 hours.
“The more information we have, the faster it is, the better everyone is,” said Vegas coach Peter DeBoer. “The only consolation I get when I know the NHL puts player safety first. But that’s a messy, messy thing to do with. “
The St. Louis Blues are the only US-based team that doesn’t have a player on the COVID-19 list. The other four in Canada: Calgary, Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto.
Yet the whims of the coronavirus do not reduce fears that a Canadian team could be affected.
“This thing is so uncontrollable and you don’t really know where it’s coming from,” said Oilers captain Connor McDavid. “I think a lot of it is just luck.”
McDavid spoke hours before the Oilers put Jesse Puljujarvi on their COVID-19 list, before being removed two days later.
In Buffalo, Krueger goes day by day on when he will return, and assistant Steve Smith will temporarily take over the helm.
Smith can see how quickly situations can change from the daily COVID-19 results that appear in his inbox.
“Every morning I have a pit of my stomach and wonder if it’s going to be my day,” said Smith. “The first thing I do is look at my cell phone and see whether it is positive or negative from the day before. I’m looking for the green button and when I’m green I’m a lucky guy. “
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno and AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell contributed to this report.
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