Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler understands why some NHL players might be reluctant to return to action while the world is still dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
As 24 NHL teams opened their training camps Monday to kick off Phase 3 of the league’s return-to-play plan, the prevailing mood seemed to be cautious optimism that the resumption of the season could be a step toward a return to normalcy.
A few players, however, have opted out of a return this season. Calgary Flames defenceman Travis Hamonic, Edmonton Oilers defenceman Mike Green, Montreal rearguard Karl Alzner and Vancouver forward Sven Baertschi are among those who have opted out.
It’s a position Wheeler appreciates and respects.
“I think everyone throughout this whole pandemic has a different level of comfort, and handles and deals with things differently,” Wheeler said Monday after the first Jets practice of their camp. “Just three weeks ago we were in south Florida, the epicentre of everything going on right now. It’s definitely been a nerve-wracking, anxious few months, and when you think about everything going on in the world, then you think about coming back and playing the game it’s sometimes hard to put that into perspective.”
“I think anyone who has made the decision not to participate, I don’t think you’re going to have anyone having any problems with it,” he added,
Wheeler said he feels pretty good about the NHL’s plan, and feels comfortable being in Manitoba where the pandemic is under control.
“You just don’t know but I’d say they’ve done their due diligence to make the environment as safe as possible,” he said.
Still, even players confident in the league’s safety protocols face the prospect of weeks away from their families while isolated from the general public in one of the NHL’s two hub cities. Wheeler said it will be tough to leave his wife Sam and their three young children for a prolonged time.
“It’s been a really tough four months with the two of us with three small children trying to explain what’s going on in the world, and not having any help, not having any babysitters, not having any family to alleviate some of that pressure sometimes,” he said. “It’s been very challenging. So the thought of leaving that all on Sam’s plate is something I probably haven’t come to terms with yet. It’s going to be really tough.
“She said ‘Don’t just leave and only play three games, that would be a waste of time. At least give me something to entertain me.'”
Jets forward Mathieu Perreault said while there are concerns with returning to play, the chance to win a championship was too much to pass up.
“It’s an opportunity to win a Stanley Cup,” Perreault said. “Obviously it’s not the best situation with my family, being away from my wife and my kids, but at the same time I couldn’t risk deciding to stay home and what if the Jets go on and win the Stanley Cup and I miss out on that? So that was the thinking I had, so this is why I’m here. I don’t want to miss out on winning the Cup.”
Head coach Paul Maurice was emphatic when asked whether it made sense for the NHL to return to play in the current situation.
“It’s a good idea because I think they’ve done a marvellous job of working hard to make sure that these players and their families are going to be safe,” he said.
“It’s a good idea because I’m a hockey fan and I’m going nuts. It’s in the middle of July and we get to see playoffs. I want to see it. I think it’s a good idea because we have a responsibility also first to our health, I get that, but also we’re entertainers right? So this is prime time. People want to watch hockey. They want to see it. That’s our job and we have a responsibility to do our job.”
The Jets are set to kick off a best-of-five playoff qualification series against the Calgary Flames on Aug. 1 in Edmonton.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 13, 2020.
© 2020 The Canadian Press