ANAHEIM – It wasn't long into his quarantine in a Minneapolis hotel room that Blake Wheeler realized he needed to form a getaway plan.
Wheeler tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 18, partway through the Jets' season-opening road trip, forcing him to isolate for 10 days as part of the NHL's health protocol. But a few days into it, he knew it wasn't going to work.
"Sticking guys in a room, four walls for 10 days, it's not a good situation," said Wheeler, who returned to practice for the first time Wednesday at the Honda Center in Anaheim.
"After three days I needed to leave."
Because Wheeler showed symptoms, he was required to remain in the U.S. for the entirety of the 10-day isolation period. But since the Jets were in Minnesota to play the Wild, an area Wheeler grew up in and where his parents still reside, he was able to safely transport, symptom-free, to be taken care of by his family.
Wheeler was grateful for the stroke of good fortune in an otherwise unfortunate situation. While at home, his parents cooked for him and he focused on improving his health, including regular exercise.
"I was back in mom and dad's basement. So, I felt like a loser, for sure," Wheeler said through a smile. "It was a lucky bounce, for sure."
The Jets captain said he's feeling good, noting he had a rough first day and a half before his symptoms eventually subsided. Given he had been following the league's strict protocols, he was asked if he was surprised when he turned in a positive test.
Yes and no, he said, before explaining that it wasn't overly shocking because he had started to feel crummy by the time the team landed in Minneapolis. He had also been tracking his health using an Oura ring – a wearable device that tracks your heart rate, body temperature, among other health metrics — and the results spoke for themself.
"I woke up Monday morning and we checked that out and that was kind of like a big red flag," Wheeler said. "That was actually really cool to kind of monitor that throughout the depths of it and just kind of where my body was at and it was a really useful tool as well, kind of knowing when I was back to somewhat 100 per cent."
Wheeler's return provided a notable spark to what was an optional workout Wednesday. He was celebrated with a loud applause from his teammates, after picking the corner on backup goalie Eric Comrie during an offensive-zone drill.
Wheeler is not just an important piece on the ice, but he's also the team's most influential leader. His return had a positive effect among those who took in the workout, and his presence will provide a welcomed boost as the Jets play the final two games of a three-game swing through California this week.
"He’s our leader, he’s our captain. He sets the tone," Jets forward Kyle Connor said. "He has a great feel for the room. If something is going on, he’ll nip it in the bud right away. That’s definitely something we missed is his leadership."
"Everybody was happy to have him, but he was the most happy guy," added head coach Paul Maurice. "Great to see him out there and we look forward to getting him back in the lineup at some point."
Wheeler remained on the ice after practice to undergo more conditioning, and admitted he still has a way to go before he's back to his normal self. It helps that the Jets have done well without their captain and No. 1 centre Mark Scheifele, who remains in the league's COVID-19 protocol after testing positive shortly after Wheeler.
The Jets have won all three games without the two key contributors, so rushing Wheeler back before he's ready doesn't make a lot of sense. Wheeler is unlikely to play against the Kings Thursday and is expected miss the final game of the road trip Saturday in San Jose versus the Sharks.
"You’ve just got to be smart. Certainly, that’s the mindset," Wheeler said. "You’re upright, you’re on two skates, so let’s go. But when I go back, I want to be there for the rest of the way. I don’t want to screw around with just getting back into the lineup because of a pride thing or whatever. There’s more to it than that."
In fact, because of rules set forth by the federal government around COVID-19, Wheeler can't cross the border into Canada for 14 days after testing positive, meaning he'll have to wait until Sunday to return to Winnipeg. That also applies to Scheifele, who is eligible to return to the team on Thursday after serving his 10-day quarantine.
But because of the 14-day mandate, if Scheifele, who has been asymptomatic the whole time, was to travel to the U.S. to join the Jets in California, he wouldn't be allowed to return to Canada until the middle of next week. In that scenario, he would have to miss the Nov. 2 home game against the Dallas Stars, so the Jets have decided to keep him at home.
"I’ve never been more excited to get back to Winnipeg, Manitoba," Wheeler said. "I'm itching to see my family. It's been a long time and luckily I get to get back for Halloween with the kids."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.