Sabres coach Ralph Krueger marked his return to practice Sunday with an upbeat but cautionary message following a 10-day bout with what he called “moderately severe symptoms” of COVID-19.
“Definitely a time to realize how lethal this COVID is,” the 61-year-old Krueger said, while expressing relief his wife hasn’t been infected. “I’m feeling quite well but, of course, scarred by the experience.”
The first month of the NHL’s pandemic-shortened season has been a bumpy one. The Sabres are among eight teams that paused their seasons, and 35 games have been postponed. From Jan. 13 through Saturday, 120 players from 26 of 31 teams have spent at least one day on the COVID-19 list. Some tested positive, others were identified as close contacts and a few had to quarantine after traveling from another country.
Buffalo is set to return from a 15-day break by hosting the New York Islanders on Monday. The Colorado Avalanche resumed play at Vegas on Sunday. Minnesota and New Jersey are scheduled to return Tuesday, while the Philadelphia Flyers, who currently have seven players on the NHL COVID-19 list, are on pause until at least Thursday.
The NHL completed last season’s playoffs in tightly secured bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta. Without those, outbreaks were considered inevitable.
“This is the new normal, unfortunately,” Golden Knights forward Mark Stone said. “I think you’re a little bit naïve to think we were going to go through a whole season without one guy testing positive. I think now we’re learning as a group and as a league.”
The NBA had a three-week head start on the NHL, and after an initial rash of postponements and more than 20 positive cases, the NBA has had just 13 players test positive since the NHL began play.
What’s in question is how quickly the NHL addressed concerns before enhancing its safety protocols twice over the past two weeks, including the introduction of game-day rapid testing for players, staff and on-ice officials.
The tipping point coincided with the Sabres hosting New Jersey for a two-game series on Jan. 30 and 31, when the league allowed the second game to be played after two players were added to the Devils’ COVID-19 list following Buffalo’s 4-3 shootout win.
New Jersey, which peaked with a league-high 19 players on the list, had its season paused a day later. The Sabres then had as many as nine players sidelined at once, plus Krueger.
The NHL had 22 players on the COVID-19 list on Jan. 30, and that number ballooned to a season-high 59 on Friday. The number dropped to 45 on Saturday, its first decrease since Jan. 29.
Krueger questioned the NHL’s decision to proceed with the second game of the Sabres-Devils series by calling it “a rough weekend,” but he’s praised the league for how it has responded since.
“I’m happy the NHL has been as constructive as possible in learning from the experience that we had,” Krueger said. “So it seems to make it worthwhile.”
Sabres forward Taylor Hall believes the league has learned from what happened.
“This is everyone’s first time going through this, and there’s going to be mistakes that are not on purpose,” 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 more blame than anyone else.”
The decision to add rapid tests came after Vegas forward Tomas Nosek was allowed to play the first two periods against Anaheim on Tuesday, before being pulled as a result of a positive test.
Rapid tests return results within a half hour and augment the PCR daily tests which were already taking place. Though more accurate, PCR tests require a 12-24 hour turnaround.
“The more information we have, the quicker it is, the better off everybody is,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said. “The one thing I can take comfort in is I know the NHL is putting the players’ safety first. But this is a messy, messy thing we’re dealing with.”
The St. Louis Blues are the only U.S.-based team to not have a player land on the COVID-19 list, with the other four based in Canada: Calgary, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.
And yet, the vagaries of the coronavirus don’t diminish fears of a Canadian team being affected.
“This thing is so uncontrollable, and you don’t really know where it’s coming from,” Oilers captain Connor McDavid said. “I think a lot of it is just flat-out luck.”
McDavid spoke hours before the Oilers placed forward Jesse Puljujarvi on their COVID-19 list, before he was removed two days later.
In Buffalo, Krueger is taking a day-at-a-time approach in determining when he’ll return, with assistant Steve Smith set to take over on an interim basis.
Smith can appreciate how quickly situations can change based on the daily COVID-19 results that pop up in his inbox.
“Every morning, I have a pit in my stomach wondering whether it’s going to be my day,” Smith said. “The first thing I do is I look at my phone and see whether it’s positive or negative from the day before. I look for the green button, and when I’m green, I’m a happy guy.”