The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated almost every aspect of American life for the last 12 months. And the sports scene around these parts has been no different. The Detroit Lions, Detroit Pistons, Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers, along with Michigan and Michigan State, have all changed how they work, travel and operate on a daily basis.
When it comes to covering these teams, our customary access to players, coaches, scouts and front-office personnel inside the locker room, clubhouse and corridors in sports venues here and abroad has been filed down to Zoom call links and pre-arranged teleconferences.
Here is a team-by-team look at how major sports in Michigan has been impacted by the pandemic:
The COVID-19 pandemic first impacted the Tigers when spring training was shut down March 12, 2020, just after the team completed a game against the Atlanta Braves at Joker Marchant Stadium.
The ensuing regular season was cut short to 60 games and didn’t start until late July, forcing the players to handle a four-month waiting period. Many players rely on team workouts to get into shape. This time, they were trying to prepare on their own — without any idea of when games would resume. In early July, the Tigers opened summer camp in Detroit to stretch out pitchers and get hitters to see live arms again.
Left-handed pitcher Daniel Norris was among a handful of players who arrived late to camp because he tested positive for the coronavirus. Although he stopped showing symptoms, he struggled to produce two negative tests in a row.
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Once the season began, the scenes at the ballparks were eerily lifeless. There were no fans allowed at Comerica Park, and scouts had to watch from home, just like the fans. This made it difficult to gather proper evaluations. Also, the minor leagues were canceled, meaning none of the organization’s top prospects, including 2020 No. 1 overall pick Spencer Torkelson, could make massive strides in overall development.
To combat the lack of minor leagues and allow teams to access more players in case of an injury or health problem, an alternate training site was created. For the Tigers, this operation was conducted at Fifth Third Field in Toledo, home of the Triple-A Mud Hens. This is where prospects Torkelson, Riley Greene, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Isaac Paredes and Dillon Dingler reported to start the season. Still, for those outside the 60-man player pool, they had to train by themselves all year.
The schedule wasn’t normal, either, as the 60 games were organized regionally to eliminate lengthy road trips. Inside the clubhouse, the players weren’t allowed to congregate in large groups. They were typically confined to their lockers and had to always wear face coverings (except on the playing field). Players underwent multiple COVID-19 tests per week.
While COVID-19 postponed, shortened or outright canceled most sports seasons and events, the NFL went ahead with business as close-to-usual as possible during the pandemic.
Free agency opened in March, the draft was held in April, and every team played all 16 regular season games, though most everything surrounding them looked and felt different.
The Lions were one of the first NFL teams to shut down their building and pull their scouts off the road March 12. They hosted draft prospects by Zoom, signed free agents without doing in-person physicals and parked an RV with an IT staffer inside in general manager Bob Quinn’s driveway for the duration of the draft.
By the time players and coaches returned to the team’s Allen Park practice facility in July, with no formal in-person offseason program to train in, the building had undergone radical change. Daily nose swabs were required to enter, social distancing was in place, players and coaches wore tracking devices to help with contact tracing, and only essential football personnel was allowed in certain areas of the building.
Three players, John Atkins, Geronimo Allison and Russell Bodine, opted out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns, and 10 more spent time on the reserve/COVID-19 list, including Matthew Stafford and Jalen Elliott twice.
Stafford said he registered a false positive Aug. 1, and in early November he was deemed a close contact to a known case.
Stafford quarantined in a local hotel, flew private to the Lions’ Nov. 8 game against the Minnesota Vikings and was cleared to play, after a week without practice, after passing a COVID test the morning of the game.
Stafford’s scare was not the only COVID issue that arose during the season. Defensive line coach Bo Davis tested positive for the virus, and he, interim head coach Darrell Bevell and the rest of the defensive staff were forced to miss a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the day after Christmas because of the NFL’s stringent coronavirus protocols.
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Receivers coach Robert Prince served as acting head coach for the game, quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan handled Bevell’s play calling duties, and an obscure assistant, Evan Rothstein, led the shorthanded defense.
The Lions lost big that game, 47-7, in front of a smattering of fans at Ford Field. But both the team and league came out winners for successfully pulling off a season that when the pandemic first started seemed unlikely to happen.
The NBA came to an abrupt halt on March 11, 2020, when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert became the first NBA player to test positive for COVID-19. Then-Pistons forward Christian Wood became the third player to test positive four days later, and Pistons scout Maury Hanks was hospitalized with the disease later that month.
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Dwane Casey caught the virus as well, he revealed earlier this month. Casey, now fully vaccinated, recently revealed that he caught the virus around the same Wood had it. Casey had no symptoms, and the team opted not to make his positive test public.
The Pistons, like the rest of the world, are not a stranger to the wide-reaching impact of the pandemic. And when it prematurely ended their 2019-20 season, it served as a harbinger for deeper changes within the organization. Detroit had already committed to rebuilding before the pandemic hit. During the pandemic, they hired a new general manager in Troy Weaver, who proceeded to make sweeping changes to the roster and bring in a new core of players to build around.
The goal this season is to compete and help the young players grow. Fans have largely watched the Pistons go through growing pains from home.
“That was some of the thought process,” Weaver said in January. “The first thought process was as we’re building, restoring, to be competitive, put a competitive team on the floor. That’s the fastest way to grow, when your product is competitive. What I mean by that is how we approach everything — practice, games, offseason, summer workouts, everything. Absolutely. Thought about this being a year where you could grow different ways and take those different things into account, as well as the pandemic.”
By the time capacity at Little Caesars Arena significantly increases, perhaps the Pistons will be more competitive than they currently are.
The Red Wings flew to Washington on March 11 as had been planned, though they suspected their road trip would be disrupted. So it was a little past noon March 12, when the NHL officially “paused” the season. The Wings were scheduled to play the Capitals that night, but players were told not to go to Capital One Arena for the morning skate. Instead their bus took them to the airport. The Wings landed in Detroit around 5:30 p.m. — 90 minutes before they had been scheduled to start their game.
The March 10 game at Little Caesars Arena against the Carolina Hurricanes was the Wings’ last game until they hosted the Hurricanes on Jan. 14, 2021.
Early in the lockdown, players found ways to keep fit in the outdoors. Hockey operations personnel worked from home and relied on video conference calls to perform year-end player meetings, prepare for the draft and discuss free agency. During a Zoom call with reporters, general manager Steve Yzerman said he could see the team moving to make virtual meetings the norm, especially during the season, rather than absorb the expenditure of flying dozens of personnel to one locale to meet in person.
When it became clear the pandemic would severely delay hockey leagues in North America, the Wings loaned several of their younger players to teams in Europe. A number of those players returned in December so they could be part of training camp, but others, such as Moritz Seider and Joe Veleno, stayed in Sweden.
When the Wings started camp Jan. 1, personnel wore masks everywhere at the arena except on the ice. Darren Helm was the first player to enter the league’s COVID-19 protocol, which lasts 14 days, after testing positive the first weekend of camp. A week into the season, the Wings had five players who had been in their opening night lineup test positive for the virus.
Following NHL mandates, only a select personnel is allowed around players, including the coaching staff, trainers and equipment managers, certain members of management, and of course medical staff. Yzerman, for example, is in the so-called bubble, so he no longer watches home games from his suite in the press gondola, avoiding exposure to non-bubble management.
The Wings have altered their travel habits in response to the pandemic, too. When possible, such as when they play at Chicago or Columbus — cities that are a half-hour in the air away — they fly in day of the game rather than the night before. There’s no such thing as a complete day off, though, because even on non-practice days everyone who is in the bubble has to come to LCA to get tested.
For many, sports will always be linked with the beginning of the pandemic. Who can forget when the Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz were pulled off the court because Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus? One of the seminal moments of that first week happened to involve Michigan basketball.
The news was jarring. March Madness is synonymous with college basketball, which, as we all know, is near and dear to the heart of American sporting culture. The pandemic took that away — and that was only the beginning of the impact it would have on the university’s athletic department. The storied football team played just six games before its season ended due to an outbreak within the program. For the first time in over a century, “The Game” was not played.
Other programs dealt with pauses and cancelations due to their own (and others’) struggles with the virus. And every sport was hit by a two-week shutdown earlier this winter because of an outbreak of the United Kingdom’s COVID-19 variant within the athletic department.
Those affected included the basketball team, which was one of the best in the nation at the time of the pause and went without playing for 23 days. It’s somewhat fitting, then, that as the pandemic begins to wane and vaccination numbers rise, the basketball team is once again headed to the postseason. The rest of us will hope that things end differently than they did last year.
Cassius Winston kissed the Breslin Center floor after another Big Ten title. Four days later, his college basketball career — and a championship season that helped him cope with the death of his brother — came to an abrupt end.
Mel Tucker and his new staff finalized plans for their first spring practices to begin four days later. They never got started.
All of the buzz around MSU athletics last March screeched to a halt with the rest of the sports world, coming at important moments for both Tom Izzo’s blueblood basketball program and Tucker’s takeover in football.
Winston, the two-time All-American, played through the grief of his brother’s death and, along with Xavier Tillman less than a month after the birth of his second child in February 2020, looked to be ready for another long NCAA tournament run.
MSU beat Ohio State on March 8 to earn a share of a third straight regular-season conference title. The Spartans were about to head to Indianapolis for the Big Ten tournament when Michigan and Rutgers players were pulled off the court before their Thursday game and the rest of the postseason got wiped out.
“It was disappointing to have last year’s tournament (canceled), because I think you’d all agree we were playing our best basketball at the end,” Izzo said. “Everybody acts like that’s what we do, that’s not what we do. Last year, we lost some games early. We dealt with something last year that was worse than (the cancellation) in a way, because it actually did affect an individual, life and death.”
Izzo’s assistant, Dwayne Stephens Jr., lost his father to COVID-19 on April 1, around the time MSU had been hoping to celebrate a national championship. The Spartans have had 13 of their 15 players contract the coronavirus this season, as well as Izzo and a number of members of his staff.
The basketball team struggled this winter between not having the normal offseason development Izzo’s program typically provides and with a schedule compacted by a 20-day layoff between games in January due to COVID issues. Along with Winston’s departure, Tillman would eventually leave after his junior season for the NBA draft. Travel restrictions prevented a recruiting visit from Canadian star guard Karim Mane, who eventually decided to turn pro but went undrafted.
The timing of the disruption also came at a critical program-building time for Tucker, who was hired Feb. 12, 2020, after Mark Dantonio’s retirement.
Tucker had been working to complete his staff and already welcomed some prospects for unofficial visits in early March when the shutdown arrived. It wiped out spring practices which he hoped to use to establish his new culture, get a look at his new players and give the Spartans a taste of what changes to expect on the field that fall. It also put traditional recruiting on hiatus, leaving coaches new to the region unable to visit prospects in their homes and high school hallways.
Players were sent home to work out on their own for three months before returning to campus in mid-June. They experienced a COVID-19 shutdown in late July and early August while prepared for Tucker’s first preseason camp, had a handful of practices before the Big Ten initially postponed the season, then scrambled out of a conditioning program to prepare a month later when the league reversed course. MSU went 2-5 during Tucker’s first fall, upsetting Michigan and Northwestern, and also had two games against Maryland wiped out due to the Terrapins’ COVID-19 issues.
Still, as Tucker prepares to finally start his first spring practices this year on March 23, he said getting on the field during the fall helped give him an idea of what challenges are ahead in his quest to return MSU among the perennial league title contenders.
“We found out a lot about our team,” Tucker said last month. “COVID was a challenge for all of us. We were very fortunate to be able to practice and to play. I said that every single week during the season, because we wanted to coach and we wanted to play. And we were able to get that done, and we were able to do that in a safe manner. So, from my point of view, it was very productive, and we got a lot out of it.”