One of the popular mantras in pro sports is to never let them see you sweat. While members of the Winnipeg Jets were preaching nothing but positivity in public, I suspect they were privately filling a few pails with perspiration after getting concerning news about the No. 1 guy their Stanley Cup hopes and dreams largely revolve around.
Not only was goaltender Connor Hellebuyck not vaccinated — when every one of his teammates had already rolled up their sleeves — but the 2019-20 Vezina Trophy winner became infected with COVID-19 late last month. He described his symptoms as "really bad fatigue… it felt like I really couldn't move a whole lot." And just when the "fog" started to clear from the initial illness, he got hit with immunization side effects that was like "getting sick all over again."
For an organization that now appears to have all the tools needed to succeed, including a talented forward core, a vastly improved blue-line and one of the best puck-stoppers in the world, this no doubt sent a chill up the collective spines of everyone involved.
The Jets can ill-afford to be without their main masked man for any prolonged stretch, especially in a year where there's not much of a safety net in place should something go wrong. Reliable backup Laurent Brossoit chased bigger money and opportunity in Las Vegas, and the salary-cap strapped squad was left pinching pennies to fill the vacancy.
It was a risky decision by general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, one that threatened to blow up on him before a roster many believe is the deepest we've ever seen around here had a single skate together. Cheveldayoff opted to prioritize spending in other areas including big summer trades that brought blue-liners Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon to town, re-signing unrestricted free agent Paul Stastny and getting new deals done with restricted free agents Andrew Copp and Neal Pionk. Those five players will combine to make US $23.115 million this year.
And so the role goes, essentially by default, to Eric Comrie and his league-minimum salary of US $750,000. The 26-year-old is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet, a humble, unassuming sort who has no shortage of people pulling for him. But that doesn't change the fact he's largely untested at this level, with just nine NHL appearances on his resume scattered over five pro seasons. His numbers — three wins, five losses, a 4.07 goals-against-average and .873 save-percentage — don't exactly inspire a ton of confidence.
Especially if Hellebuyck can't answer the bell for a spell. Fortunately his symptoms subsided, he got the single-dose Johnson & Johnson jab and made it from his off-season residence in Michigan to his hockey home in Winnipeg just in time for the puck to drop earlier this week on an all-important training camp where his club is being viewed as a legitimate championship contender.
Hellebuyck has declared himself ready to go, joking that he'd play all 82 regular-season games starting next month if coach Paul Maurice gives him the green light. Let's hope that's the case, for reasons that have nothing to do with how many wins the Jets can rack up over the coming campaign. As we've learned during the pandemic, COVID-19 is no laughing matter, and troubling stories have started emerging of otherwise healthy pro athletes who have been impacted in major ways.
Earlier this week, the Edmonton Oilers announced goalie Alex Stalock is unlikely to play in 2021-22 due to a heart condition that has been linked to a previous positive diagnosis. Winnipegger Jonathan Toews, and Minnesota Wild prospect Marco Rossi both missed last year due to suspected "long-haul" effects.
"As far as I know, I'm healthy," said Hellebuyck.
What makes this sting even more is the notion it all could have been prevented. If Hellebuyck had been vaccinated months ago, there's a good chance he never contracts the virus in the first place and blows up what has basically been his last month of training, putting both himself and the hockey club at risk. Yes, it's an individual choice, but this is also a team sport, one where those choices have consequences. We're seeing that now play out around the league, with a handful of players like Tyler Bertuzzi (Detroit), Josh Archibald (Edmonton) and Zac Rinaldo (Columbus) refusing to get vaccinated.
You'd think this wouldn't be an issue in a profession where guys won't think twice about putting themselves in harm's way by stepping in front of a blistering slapshot.
Hellebuyck claims he waited so long to get immunized because he was concerned about the potential impact on him, especially since he doesn't have a spleen as a result of a childhood accident. He had kicked the issue down the road this summer, and it was only when the NHL and the players association made it clear unvaccinated players would not be able to return to Canada from the United States without a 14-day quarantine — and they would not be paid for missed games — that he reluctantly agreed. By that time, he had just tested positive, prompting an even further delay.
The Jets are monitoring his health closely and hope there are no further issues, based on how Hellebuyck came through training camp medicals and has performed his first few days on the ice. He is slated to play three of the six pre-season games on the schedule, with his first to be next Wednesday when the Edmonton Oilers come to town. Comrie will get a pair of contests, including Sunday's opener at the downtown rink against Ottawa. Mikhail Berdin, the third-stringer in the organization, is expected to get the other game.
Once the regular-season gets underway on Oct. 13 in Anaheim, Hellebuyck is being counted on to carry a much heavier workload. Not only will he likely start as many as 65 meaningful games running through April — and, the club hopes, many more playoff tilts in May and June — he's also projected to be in the crease for the United States at the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February.
That is a lot of high-stakes hockey for a guy who, in his own words, was having trouble moving around his own living room just a few short week ago. This isn't some office job where he can just ease back into routine. The rubber is about to start flying, fast and furious.
Cheveldayoff conceded this pre-season scare involving Hellebuyck has caused him to consider how he might handle future scenarios, noting "you have to be prepared for anything and everything… especially during these times." He delivered the message in a calm, cool and collected manner. Given Hellebuyck's importance to the club — and the rather shaky fallback plan currently in place — I wonder if he might have had to wring out his suit once he got home.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.