Red Wings reflect on strange, different year: ‘It’s been a long grind for everybody’

Detroit News

Ted Kulfan | The Detroit News

Detroit — The realization of what was to come had begun the day before, but on March 12 last year the unexpected arrived in the NHL.

The league paused its season due to the concerns of the coronavirus.

The Red Wings were preparing to travel to the Verizon Center for a morning skate, scheduled to play in Washington later that evening.

They never made it to the arena, rumors swirling commissioner Gary Bettman was going to pause the season.

Several hours later, the official announcement came.

“At that point we were all expecting there’s going to be a little delay and we’ll finish the season in a couple weeks,” forward Adam Erne said.

The Wings didn’t qualify for the NHL’s Return To Play last summer, as the league was able to conclude its season and crown Tampa Bay the Stanley Cup champion.

For the Red Wings and six other teams, it was a long wait, not being able to play hockey until a shortened 56-game regular season begin in January.

“I didn’t know if our season was going to continue (last March), but I sure didn’t think I’d be sitting here coming up on St. Patrick’s Day and the world still not being close to normal,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “I didn’t think it would be 10 months before we got back on the ice. I didn’t think it would be a year and we still would have limited fans (in arenas).

“It’s been a long grind for everybody. Hopefully, there’s light at the end of the tunnel and we get as close to normal as possible.

“It was like nothing I ever thought I’d go through and hopefully we don’t have to go through it again.”

Forward Sam Gagner remembers being in Detroit, but his family was back in Edmonton as Gagner had been acquired in a trade a few weeks before.

Gagner didn’t go on the trip to Washington, as he was nursing an injury.

But Gagner was talking with teammates monitoring the news, and given all the bad news, knew the potential for a pause to the season was real.

“I was trying to figure out how long the break (or pause) would be, what’s kind of going on in the world, and how am I going to back to see my family?”  said Gagner, who drove to Toronto before the end of that weekend, and ultimately flew to Edmonton. “Are the borders going to close? All those types of things. There was a lot on everyone’s minds and we’re a year from it now and it’s still on everyone’s minds.

“You look at our situation and you just feel for everyone who is going through, still, a difficult time now and just be thankful we’re back playing and doing what we love to do.”

Another virus surge in the autumn pushed back any hope of starting this season until January.

And the late start didn’t seem to help, as several teams, including the Wings, battled COVID-19 outbreaks that decimated lineups and cancelled games.

The Wings had five regulars out of the lineup, which weakened their lineup, and cost them potential victories.

But over the last couple of weeks, there have been as few as three players on the COVID-19 protocol list, showing the NHL — and society — is making progress.

“The rapid tests on game days that’s been a real positive,” Blashill said. “The situation that happened with us (in mid-January), and I don’t have proof of this, but it would seem we got the transmission from players we played against for Carolina (season opening series). We had done a good job of not getting infected from the outside.

“It looks like there’s light at the end of the tunnel for us as a society, and that’ll only help us be able to finish the season.”

The one positive through all this, said Blashill and players, was the opportunity to spend quality time with family.

There was more time to be at home, when there wouldn’t have been otherwise, and for that, everyone is thankful.

“At one point I said, ‘We’re going to enjoy the summer,’ and it was beautiful,” Blashill said. “The one positive of the whole thing is that I spent more time with my kids and more time with my wife than I normally get a chance to do, whether it was watching movies, going walks with my wife, which I hadn’t really done much.

“Our family had grown closer because of the time we spent together.”

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tkulfan

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