Alain Vigneault and the Flyers were left bracing for the unknown.
A trip to Washington, D.C, something that has become so routine for the Flyers over the years, evolved into a weeklong, hold-your-breath experience in which the team will likely never forget.
The coronavirus made its way within the Flyers' group, revealing itself during the club's two-game set in the nation's capital last week. Multiple cases of COVID-19 put the Flyers in an NHL-mandated lockdown that spanned seven days.
Vigneault, general manager Chuck Fletcher and the Flyers are amidst making the best of an unsettling situation. Albeit shorthanded by a lot, the team returned to the ice Tuesday at Virtua Center Flyers Skate Zone for the first time since Feb. 8, when it practiced at Capital One Arena. The Flyers were shut down Feb. 9 and came home in the afternoon instead of playing a game against the Capitals that night.
"I’ve stayed in touch especially with the players that got COVID or were in close contact and were considered COVID possibilities," Vigneault said Tuesday. "As an organization, Chuck and I and my assistants, we’ve been keeping in touch to see how the guys are feeling. Fortunately, we’ve had some that have had very minimal symptoms and some that have had no symptoms at all, so we’ve been fortunate that way.
"The other guys (non-positives), we’ve been telling everybody to stay ready. We didn’t know how long this was going to be; was it going to be seven days? Eight days? A full two weeks?
“Hopefully we got it in time and now this virus is going to stay away from our team.”
The tests and trip home
On Super Bowl Sunday, Travis Sanheim missed the Flyers' 7-4 win over the Capitals because he was placed on the NHL's COVID protocol list. With no Sanheim, the Flyers were able to practice Monday after their COVID-19 tests came back negative.
The next day, their game against the Capitals was postponed following what happened to be at least one positive test. The Flyers that Tuesday received their typical lab-based PCR COVID-19 tests and the recently league-wide instituted game-day point of care rapid tests. Vigneault confirmed that Claude Giroux had tested positive, which led to the postponement of the game. Giroux and Justin Braun were added to the NHL's COVID protocol list that night.
As Giroux and Braun stayed in Washington, D.C., the Flyers traveled home abnormally in the afternoon.
“Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday were crazy days," Fletcher said this Tuesday. "You’re testing a lot and waiting for results and just hopeful that the virus isn’t spreading through the team. We were able to avoid some damage, but certainly we had some players test positive and that’s a difficult thing to do.
“It’s tough when you’re on the road; it’s a lot easier I think when you’re at home maybe to control and contain some things. Certainly you look at this facility here, the Skate Zone — we have an awful lot of space to physically distance, we have two dressing rooms that we can use, we have two medical rooms, we have two change rooms, two sets of showers, a massive weight room, so things are a lot easier at home versus being on the road, when you have buses and you’re in smaller dressing rooms and you’re doing the best you can.
"We tested twice on that Tuesday — we tested in the morning and everybody that tested negative was allowed to get on three different buses to travel home. I believe we had about 12 people on each bus and we did the best we could to physically distance. But clearly once the virus is in your group, the results aren’t always desirable."
'Following everything to the letter'
During the club's shutdown, the Flyers came to the facility strictly for COVID-19 testing and nothing else.
"We came in every morning between 9:30 and 10:30, some days we had one test we had to do, some other days we had two," Vigneault said. "Came in through the front door, there was an area locked out, did our testing, got back in our vehicles and went home. That’s what the mandate was from the league. We’ve been following all the protocols, and we’ve been following everything to the letter. I'm not exactly sure how this came about, how unfortunately we got a case that led to two that led to obviously more, but somehow it happened."
The NHL has dealt with a multitude of postponements and a number of team shutdowns because of the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this month, the league revised and heightened its COVID-19 arena protocols as well as its testing/safety measures.
The Flyers on Tuesday night had seven players on the NHL's COVID protocol list: Travis Konecny, Oskar Lindblom, Scott Laughton, Morgan Frost, Jakub Voracek, Giroux and Braun. There are a number of contributing factors for why a player can be placed on the COVID protocol list. A player being out because of COVID protocol does not necessarily mean the player tested positive for the coronavirus.
It's unknown how many of the Flyers' players and/or staff members tested positive for COVID-19 during this period.
"In our group, one of the guys — I'm not going to name his name — that put so much emphasis on the mask and washing his hands and doing all the right things, social distancing, we have no idea how he got COVID but he still got COVID," Vigneault said. "Let’s hope that the ones that do get it stay healthy, which is what has happened so far, and let’s hope that this is it and we get back to playing some hockey.
"Without a doubt it’s been concerning to everyone. My players have wives, girlfriends, kids, parents — obviously this is concerning to a lot."
'The group chat's still firing away'
Kevin Hayes was one of 16 players to practice Tuesday. Per usual, Hayes was noticeably vocal and upbeat on the ice, particularly after the Flyers had been away for seven days.
Hayes won't have six of his regular teammates when the team plays its first game in 11 days. The Flyers host the Rangers on Thursday (7 p.m. ET/NBCSP) and will be without Giroux, Konecny, Voracek, Lindblom, Laughton and Braun.
"I love being around the guys, I love hanging out with the guys away from the rink, going to dinner," Hayes said. "This year we haven’t been allowed to do that, we’ve got a lot of rules we've got to follow, we’ve got to make sure everyone’s taking the right safety protocols and doing the right things for the season to keep going.
"It’s definitely different; the only time you see your teammates is at the rink and on the ice. It makes it that much more fun at the rink."
Giroux's ironman streak of 328 consecutive games played will come to an end Thursday night. The last game the captain missed was April 10, 2016, when he sat out as a healthy scratch in the Flyers' regular-season finale as the team had already clinched its playoff berth the day prior.
Hayes, a leader of the Flyers' team group text message, made sure to connect with Giroux and Braun while the two teammates had to stay in D.C.
"It’s definitely scary, but I try to make them laugh about it a little bit," Hayes said. "There’s nothing funny about COVID, but I just tried to FaceTime G and Justin when they were stuck in Washington, try to get them laughing a bit. Everyone [within our team] that has COVID right now is handling it the right way and symptoms aren’t too bad, so hopefully that keeps up. It’s tough to keep the mood light when guys aren’t allowed to come to the rink and do their job that they’ve been doing for years now. But the group chat's still firing away, we’re still chatting and stuff."
Not able to show at Lake Tahoe?
Following Thursday's game, the Flyers will travel to Stateline, Nevada, to play the Bruins on Sunday in one of the NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe games this weekend.
Did the Flyers ever hear word from the NHL that they were in danger of not participating in the event?
"Not to my knowledge, no," Fletcher said. "I’ve been in daily contact with [NHL deputy commissioner] Bill Daly and the whole emphasis has just been on the health and welfare of our players, making sure we’re doing what we can to keep the players that have contracted the virus isolated, keep other players in quarantine and keep our facility shut down. I talk to him on a daily basis about what our test results are when we receive them and we’ve just been working together to get to this day that we are now where we are back practicing, albeit with a smaller group. The whole focus has been on getting back and getting ready for Thursday. And all going well, that’s what we’re hoping to do. We didn’t have any of those conversations, no."
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