NHLPA’s Fehr buoyed by zero positive tests: ‘So far so good’

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TORONTO  — Zero players testing positive for COVID-19 in the two weeks since NHL teams arrived at their two respective playoff hub cities. And a powerful opening night statement on social and racial justice issues made by the league and its players.

Given the uncertainty professional hockey faced in placing its season on pause in mid-March, NHL Players’ Association chief Don Fehr couldn’t have envisioned a better resumption of play five months later with the first round of the playoffs getting under way.

”At that point you could envision all kinds of things, but you were just sort of mentally spit-balling when you did,” Fehr told The Associated Press in a phone interview Tuesday.

”So far so good. That’s about all we can say,” he added. ”And we keep our fingers crossed and knock on wood, and throw salt over our shoulders and whatever else we can think will help.”

The NHL has made it this far without a hiccup.

Minus fans in the stands in both Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, with players holed up in hotel ”bubbles,” and eight of 24 teams already sent packing following a best-of-five preliminary round, the NHL is indeed back in its bid to complete the playoffs and award the Stanley Cup by early October.

And in a season in which the NHL was confronted with racial concerns, which led to Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters’ resignation in November, the league made its position clear upon its return.

Minnesota Wild forward Matt Dumba took the lead by delivering an impassioned speech on racial justice on behalf of players and the league before the opening game in Edmonton on Aug. 1.

”Those comments don’t need me or anybody else to underscore their significance,” Fehr said. ”When the players participate in it, when they make their voices known, when they stand up for equality and non-discrimination, of course you feel proud of them, and you feel satisfied by what they’ve done. You couldn’t feel otherwise.”

In the meantime, the daily round of testing has so far paid off, with the NHL announcing Monday that 7,245 tests conducted over two weeks have returned no positive results for the new coronavirus.

”We designed a system consciously to try and minimize to the greatest extent possible risk of exposure and positive cases, and so far it’s played out that way,” Fehr said, with the caveat that players and staff must continue being responsible.

But it’s far better than what’s happened in Fehr’s former sport, Major League Baseball, which has experienced numerous delays and postponements due to players acting irresponsibly.

”I don’t’ know what the situation is in baseball in any meaningful way, except that they do have more difficult problems if they’re traveling,” said Fehr, who previously served as MLB’s union chief. ”We opted not to do that, at least for now. We’ll see what happens next fall.”

Fehr was referring to next season, tentatively scheduled to begin in December, when teams would likely resume traveling for games. Should everything continue going smoothly, Fehr expects the league and players to have further planning discussions on the 2020-21 season next month.

”We’ll hope we’ll be able to get fans into the stands and life can return to normal sooner rather than later. But that won’t be our call,” Fehr said. ”Ask me after Labor Day is my best answer.”

The primary focus remains on finishing this season, with NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly also encouraged by how the past two weeks have unfolded.

”Obviously, the lack of any positive cases is the most encouraging development we could have hoped for,” Daly wrote in an email to the AP.

”It’s a testament to the seriousness with which our players and club staff have approached the situation,” he added. ”We still have a long way to go, and we are the first to acknowledge that. But we couldn’t have asked for a better start.”

The NHL has also backed its players on racial justice issues. ”#We Skate For BLACK LIVES” is printed on a large banner placed in each arena’s end zone, and ”Black Lives Matter” is a fixture on the electronic boards over each section entrance in Toronto.

The league, on Aug. 1, also debuted a four-minute video advocating an end to racism.

”Racism is a societal issue that we are not immune from in hockey,” Daly wrote. ”We all need to do better and do more to eliminate it. And we feel we need to be doing our part to achieve that objective.”

Fehr drew upon memories of the Civil Rights movement he witnessed growing up in the 1960s.

”I remember the pre-Civil Rights Act, and I remember all of the trauma and turmoil that occurred back then,” Fehr said. ”It appears that we’re on the cusp, if I can say it that way, of finishing that process. And I certainly hope that’s true.”

Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

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Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

“We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

“I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

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OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.

Blackhawks’ Boris Katchouk sidelined by ankle sprain

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CHICAGO — Blackhawks forward Boris Katchouk will be sidelined for four to six weeks with a left ankle sprain, the team announced.

The 24-year-old Katchouk played almost 12 minutes during a 3-0 preseason loss to Detroit on Saturday night. He was acquired in a multiplayer trade with Tampa Bay in March.

The Blackhawks open the season on Oct. 12 at Colorado.

The team also said forward Jujhar Khaira is day to day with a right ankle injury.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.