ST. PAUL — Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler has tested positive for COVID-19 and is being isolated from the team while he battles ongoing symptoms.
The organization revealed details of Wheeler's current status following the morning skate at Xcel Energy Center. Wheeler won't be in the lineup for tonight's game against his hometown Minnesota Wild and will be absent for an indefinite period of time.
Under NHL protocols, he must remain in quarantine for a minimum of 10 days, then be symptom-free before he could rejoin his teammates. All other Jets players have tested negative so far and can continue to play as normal.
"I don't know if scary is the right world, but it gives us a jolt," Jets forward Andrew Copp said following the pre-game skate here in St. Paul.
"We never really had to deal with that last year, so it was definitely a weird scenario to go through," added centre Mark Scheifele. "Obviously, it sucks for him and all that you hope is that he’s feeling fine and he comes back feeling good. So, obviously the virus is still around and we’ve got to be aware of it. Just extra precaution I’d say."
All Jets players and team personnel are fully vaccinated, but that doesn't completely prevent so-called breakthrough cases from occurring. Wheeler played the first two games of this season-opening road trip, a 4-1 loss in Anaheim last Wednesday and a 4-3 setback in San Jose last Saturday, registering one assist. He flew with his teammates to Minnesota on Sunday afternoon, but entered COVID-19 protocol after testing positive prior to Monday's practice.
"(COVID-19) is still around, can’t just be licking every doorknob and doing that kind of thing," said Copp. "I guess a little bit of an awakening, possibly, but we still got to go out and play hockey. We’re lucky enough to have everyone vaccinated so, hopefully, that keeps it out, maybe, just that hair more. Some guys have had it, so hopefully, that immunity lasts. Just trying to treat it like an injury right now. Obviously, we’ve played some games without Blake in the past, so everyone is just gonna have to step up."
Copp moves up to the top line tonight to play with Scheifele and Kyle Connor. Paul Stastny moves up to the second line to skate with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Nikolaj Ehlers. And Adam Lowry centers a new-look third line with Jansen Harkins and Kristian Vesalainen. Riley Nash and Evgeny Svechnikov are the other forwards who will dress tonight, as the Jets elect to go with just 11 forwards and seven defencemen. That means Nathan Beaulieu makes his season debut, while rookie forward Cole Perfetti will be the lone healthy scratch.
Connor Hellebuyck starts in goal.
"I thought it was a little bit tight yesterday," Jets coach Paul Maurice said of the mood around the team after learning of Wheeler's status. "We had to bump practice back a few minutes just to make sure all the other tests came back. And then I thought we were good this morning, kind of over it and ready to go."
Last season, several NHL teams had one case quickly snowball into major outbreaks, causing numerous games to be postponed. But that was before vaccinations, with all but four NHL players now fully immunized according to the league. The hope is that widespread infections will now be a thing of the past.
"It's been part of the world so we kind of live with it. We are tested every day now and masks are on all the time," said Maurice. "It's one of the 10 other distractions that you will face over the course of an NHL season. So you will just deal with it. Whether it’s your time zone changes, all of those things that are just factors on all teams. You just deal with it."
Copp said it's definitely been a nervous couple days around the club.
"I think everyone just kind of stuck to themselves yesterday at the hotel," he said. "You could be going for your walk, you call your family or whatever, just trying to stay somewhat busy. I think everyone is a little bit more on edge, maybe, but now that we got through today, at least, we’re just trying to concentrate on tonight’s game."
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.