The Winnipeg Jets will be without two thirds of their top offensive line for the team’s home-opener on Thursday evening.
Early Monday morning, team captain Blake Wheeler was placed in league-mandated COVID Protocol, as the 35-year-old had tested positive for COVID-19. He recorded a second positive test and began experiencing symptoms while on Winnipeg’s season-opening Western Conference road trip.
Discovering he was indeed COVID positive, Wheeler followed protocol and began isolating in a St. Paul, MN. hotel. On Wednesday, reports surfaced that the Jets had been the recipient of a number of other positive tests. On Thursday morning, Winnipeg placed top line center Mark Scheifele on COVID Protocol.
Although that move did not necessarily indicate that Scheifele actually has COVID, it did mean that he received a positive test. Since recording his positive test, the Jets’ points leader from 2020-21 has been asymptomatic.
Following Thursday’s morning skate, head coach Paul Maurice updated local media that Scheifele since tested negative for COVID-19 following his initial test, and required a second negative test before he can suit up.
Unfortunately for Winnipeg, the test results came back negatively positive, meaning Scheifele has in fact contracted the virus. He will remain in 10-day isolation and then look to pass two COVID-19 tests 24 hours apart, in order to be cleared for game action.
“We have game time decisions all the time,” Maurice said. “The difference is if a guy has a pulled groin, you don’t have to worry about it spreading to the guy he sits beside on the plane. We’ve got two line-ups, two plans, and two power play groups. Mark is in the protocol now, so we’re going down one direction. We’ve got that set for tonight. If we get good news on Mark here, we’ll just quickly switch.”
Scheifele, who had completed his second test earlier in the day on Thursday, remains in isolation and did not participate in the team skate. Results of his test were made known at 4:30 PM, just in time for Maurice to solve his lineup nightmare for Thursday’s 7:00 PM contest against the Anaheim Ducks.
Unfortunately for Scheifele, it isn’t just any old game, nor is it any old illness. Thursday is Winnipeg’s first game at home in front of thousands of fans in nearly 600 days. And his virus isn’t just your average cold, it is potentially COVID-19.
“They’re in as good of spirits as you can,” Maurice said, after indicating that he has been in contact via text with both isolating players. “Mark is quite hopeful and feels good. Blake is on the mend. Both wish they could play tonight. We wish they would as well.”
As for the rest of the Jets, many have been in Scheifele’s place, including newcomer Nate Schmidt, who was forced to miss significant time with Vancouver last season as COVID ran rampant through the Canucks’ roster.
“It’s always tougher, obviously, when it’s your captain, one of your top players, and potentially your other top player,” Schmidt reflected via Zoom. “I think that is going to make a little more news. But everyone’s going to go through it. I think we’re getting back to normal, and you’re going to have cases like this that’ll happen, so be it. We’ve got to learn to live with it and learn to play with it.”
But for Schmidt, the other more important aspect is that of the health of his teammates. Not just the current health, but that of future issues related to potentially contracting COVID-19.
“The biggest thing for all these guys, if they do feel sick or anything hopefully it’ll only take a couple of days and they’ll bounce back,” he said. “And for the guys that are asymptomatic, that’s what you hope for. Hopefully it doesn’t drain them and have too many long-term effects on those guys. But in that sense it’s something that everyone’s going to go through in all sports, and we’ve just got to deal with it.”
Although the team is still amid a COVID breakout, Schmidt says the new normal will involve positive cases continuing to pop up, no matter vaccination status or how many precautions are taken.
“I’m less concerned for the fact that our whole team is vaccinated,” the defenceman reflected. “At some point, we have to say we’ve done all we can. If you’re vaccinated and you do the right things, it’s nobody’s fault. It’s just this thing’s going to happen whether it’s in the hockey rink, in the grocery store, with your family. This thing has to come to a point that if you are vaccinated, how much more can you do? You’re doing your part, right, and if you’re doing the right things, we’ve got to move towards having things to be normal.”
Good friend and teammate Paul Stastny also chipped in on his lack of shock at the news of positive tests. Despite expressing his well-wishes for both Wheeler and Scheifele, the veteran forward also indicated that he didn’t think either player is at much risk.
“I guess we’re not surprised with anything,” Stastny said. “Trainers kind of gave us a warning that there might be a trickle-down effect. Not as nervous as you would have been last year. I think everyone’s vaccinated now, so there shouldn’t be that many guys that test positive, or if they do hopefully all of them are asymptomatic and there’s no long-term effects.”
“I’m not concerned for him,” Stastny added. “Probably more concerned for his wife, who’s at home with the three kids. She’s busy. Yeah, it’s unfortunate that he’s stuck in Minnesota. Unfortunate anyone that gets it, especially if you’re on the road and you’re kind of stuck there. But every day he’s feeling a little better, which is the most important thing. It’s a tough break.”
One day after demoting young forward Cole Perfetti to the American Hockey League, the Jets have since recalled Dominic Toninato from the Manitoba Moose. Likely going with an 11/7 forward-defence split, the team will look to pick up its first win of the 2021-22 campaign in its first game playing out of Canada Life Centre this season. Puck drop is set for 7:00 PM central time.
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