Amid daily anxiety, Detroit Red Wings forge ahead with next-game mentality

Detroit Free Press

Dylan Larkin put it bluntly: The possibility of getting a positive test result for COVID-19 never strays from his mind, even as he has locked into an upbeat mentality.

The Detroit Red Wings gained three players and two coaches Monday, increasing attendance at practice to 15 players. Head coach Jeff Blashill, assistant coach Alex Tanguay, and players Pius Suter, Givani Smith and Carter Rowney emerged from protocol, one day after forwards Robby Fabbri and Michael Rasmussen. That leaves goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic and skaters Filip Zadina, Sam Gagner, Joe Veleno, Adam Erne, Jordan Oesterle, Lucas Raymond and Nick Leddy in pandemic protocol.

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Goalie Victor Brattstrom and skaters Riley Barber, Dan Renouf and Luke Witkowski were added to the newly formed taxi squad. The NHL added taxi squads as part of the post-Christmas return-to-play plan in response to the surge in personnel testing positive around the league. 

More Wings are expected to emerge from protocol over the coming days, and the plan is to have them available for the next game on the schedule, Wednesday at the New York Islanders.

“If they tell me they are not comfortable, they are just not ready to, then they wouldn’t play,” Blashill said. “But our expectation having spoken to all of them, is that as guys come off, they will be inserted into practice and then into the lineup.”

The virus hit the Wings so hard they shut down Dec. 19 for a week. Larkin — who had a false positive in mid-November but otherwise has stayed healthy — described what it is like to go through daily testing.

“You’re thinking about it constantly,” he said. “There is a little bit of anxiousness with testing every day, showing up to the rink, wondering if you’re going to be done for 10 days or you’re going to be able to play.

“You have to be a good pro. You have to be ready for whatever comes at you. But it is very difficult and it can be frustrating at times, I’m sure, for the guys that test positive and don’t have any symptoms, but there are protocols and we just try to follow them. But it is a very tough situation showing up and not knowing if you’re going to be positive or negative.”

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General manager Steve Yzerman said Dec. 18 that everyone in the organization was being encouraged to get the booster shot, and not being able to practice for one week facilitated that step.

“Some guys did and certainly it was offered,” Blashill said. “If the booster can help us keep people on the ice, players have been encouraged to do that, with the end goal of trying to stay eligible to play and not contract the virus.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt there’s an anxiety around guys who haven’t tested positive of almost waiting to feel like you are going to test positive, as transmissible as this has been. You are nervous and you feel every little thing with your body that isn’t 100% perfect and you wonder if you’re going to test positive. That’s not an easy thing, but it’s not unique to us, nor is the challenge of being off for a number of days unique to us. Both of those things, we are going to have to make sure we handle and that we have that mental toughness.”

Three of the 67 games postponed this season involve the Wings. It speaks to the uncertainty that permeates daily life that Larkin said, “hopefully, we’re playing,” in reference to Wednesday. “That seems to be day-to-day,” Larkin said.

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Mental toughness is a daily demand, but this week also brings the physical challenge of resuming practices after being off for a week. At least the last two years have imparted valuable lessons.

“Last season was experience and you learn how to deal with it,” Larkin said. “I really felt that having positive attitude about it, and whatever happens, happens, and you just deal with it. You can’t dwell on how many guys are missing, or what could happen. You have to just be ready to play. I really believe that. I’ve convinced myself to think that way and I feel it’s been beneficial. I think the guys have done a great job with whatever happens. We either play or don’t, but if you’re playing, be ready to go. We’ve been through it multiple times over the last two years, so you just deal with it and move on.”

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail. 

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