Maple Leafs grappling with COVID-19 uncertainty as outbreaks spread across NHL

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VANCOUVER – When the Toronto Maple Leafs return from their road trip through COVID-stricken Western Canada, they’ll return to half-full home dates and relieved families.

The uncertainty surrounding the latest wave of the virus has affected the National Hockey League in a multitude of ways this week.

At last count, 60 positive NHL cases were reported in the past four days (although the vast majority are asymptomatic).

Under health guidance from the Quebec government, the Montreal Canadiens played Thursday’s game in an empty Bell Centre.

Ontario mandated that attendance at Raptors, Leafs and Ottawa Senators games be chopped off at 50 per cent capacity until further notice.

“It’s tough. Coming into the season, you’re so excited about making that step and playing in front of fans again,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said Thursday, following practice at the University of British Columbia.

“We’re so grateful to be able to still play in front of half capacity, and the fans certainly have made an unbelievable difference this season — not just at home. Look at the other night in Edmonton: that response our players were getting, for a road game, that’s tremendous. It’s a great part about being a Leaf.

“Certainly around here and around the NHL, everybody in our community should be on high alert.”

Editor’s Note: The COVID-19 situation, in the NHL and around the world, is constantly evolving. Readers in Canada can consult the country’s public health website for the latest.

The Maple Leafs have yet to report a positive test, but they’ve been walking a tightrope on this trip.

The virus took Edmonton coach Dave Tippett off the bench for Tuesday’s game, and Oilers Devin Shore and Ryan McLeod have both entered protocol. The Leafs cancelled a flight to Calgary with the hard-hit Flames postponing a string of games. And now they’re spending extra practice days in Vancouver, awaiting Saturday’s matinee with the Canucks, who still have three players and an assistant coach, Jason King, in isolation. (Tucker Poolman returned two negative tests after his initial positive.)

Meanwhile back home, an unnamed Marlies player tested positive. Four others are isolating as a precautionary measure.

“Since we came out west to Edmonton, I’ve haven’t left my hotel except for going for walks,” Keefe said. “Frankly, my priority right now is to get back to Toronto in time for Christmas healthy and safe. Get back to my family. I think everybody is like that.

“It’s even extra challenging being on the road right now because I don’t want to be stuck here through Christmas. So, there’s lots of reasons to be smart right now.”

To that end, the NHL has tightened protocol around masking, distancing and mingling in public. You won’t catch the Leafs dining on sushi downtown, as the league takes steps backward toward 2020-21 conditions.

“Players are definitely aware. You can’t help but be concerned given how much the cases have blown up here. The good news, if any, [is that] most of what we’ve heard from around the league is that symptoms have been pretty minor, generally speaking,” Keefe said.

Vancouver-based Dr. Ali Rendely is skeptical that Ontario’s 50 per cent measure will be effective, considering those fans that do attend will be removing their masks to eat and drink while they enjoy the game. It’s a half measure, literally.

“We’re at a tenuous point in the pandemic,” Rendely told The Jeff Marek Show Thursday. “I don’t really think that’s going to decrease spread.”

MLSE will prioritize seating for Leafs and Raptors season ticket holders through the middle of January and refund single-game ticket buyers.

The Leafs players were disappointed by the news but realize it’s out of their control.

“We don’t want to be going backwards, but it’s the nature of the beast,” captain John Tavares said. “Hopefully it’s not something that lasts too long, but all we can do is just focus on getting prepared to play, whatever the circumstances are. We’re still going to be fortunate to have 50 per cent of our fan base still being a part of it. It means a lot. So, just is what it is. And hopefully we’re back to 100 in the near future.”

Added Ondrej Kase: “For me, it’s really sad, actually. But it’s tough situation everywhere. So, I hope it’s a good decision for Ontario.”

Lurking in the backdrop of the NHL’s upheaval is January’s deadline to go or not go to Beijing for the Olympics.

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Trepidation is mounting and hopes are tempering.

The participation question is something all Maple Leafs under consideration for their respective national teams have been discussing internally.

“A lot of things that bring concern and that come into play. A lot of things we still don’t know. So, just trying to wait and see how it all plays out,” said Tavares, an ardent Team Canada hopeful.

“As time passes here over the next few weeks, it’s really going to give us the indication of what’s going to happen and what’s going to be likely.

“Just makes you feel a lot more uneasy than I felt a little while ago. We all hope to play. I mean, we recognize what a special opportunity it is. Best-on-best, how unique that is. So, we really want to try to make that work. But trying to balance the other side of it and understand what makes sense and how realistic certain things are.”


Still no word from Gary Bettman on a verdict from Jason Spezza’s suspension appeal. The forward has already served four of his allotted six games in the ban.

Nick Ritchie (illness, non-COVID) missed Tuesday’s win in Edmonton but hopped on Air Canada Wednesday night and rejoined the team in Vancouver.

With Brett Seney (fractured and cut pinkie finger) injured in his Leafs debut, the bottom six was reshuffled as so: Mikheyev-Kämpf-Ritchie and Clifford-Engvall-Simmonds.

Wayne Simmonds retained his net-front spot on PP2 despite Ritchie’s return.

Jack Campbell starts Saturday in Vancouver; Petr Mrazek is the likely starter Sunday in Seattle.

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