When the sun rose in Vancouver ten days ago, Jason Spezza received news from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman that his six-game suspension for kneeing Winnipeg Jets defenseman Neal Pionk was successfully reduced to four games.
Having just served the fourth contest earlier in the week, Spezza was excited to suit up for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ next game on Saturday against the Vancouver Canucks.
But then in a span of roughly four-to-six hours, he learned he tested positive for COVID-19.
“I was pretty down,” Spezza said. “With the excitement of coming back and [to] come on the road trip and was really hopeful that I’d get my suspension reduced; And then to have it taken away with COVID was a range of emotions.”
The game against the Canucks didn’t happen and the Maple Leafs had their season paused shortly thereafter.
Spezza, Wayne Simmonds and Alex Kerfoot exited COVID-19 protocol on Monday and joined the team for their first practice since the outbreak within the team began.
All three players, along with John Tavares were among the first wave of Leafs players added back on Dec. 17th. Tavares joined Maple Leafs practice on Sunday, the team’s first since pausing all team-related activities.
The timing of Spezza’s positive test ended up having a silver lining for the veteran forward. He registered multiple negative rapid tests in time that he could spend Christmas morning with his family.
On Sunday, Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas explained the process of trying to get the COVID-19 positive players and staff home safely. After securing a charter flight with full transparency of COVID and the company providing assurances they could handle it, the pilot of the scheduled flight backed out at the last minute citing he wasn’t comfortable with the situation. The Leafs scrambled and eventually secured another flight later that evening on a red-eye thanks to some medical transport connections through team medical director Dr. Noah Foreman.
While Spezza admitted that there was some concern about getting home in time for the holidays, he was thankful he contracted COVID-19 while on the road and away from his family.
“I think there was some comfort in that,” Spezza said. “So it was probably good that I spent a few days in the hotel to give them a chance to get up to my wife’s parents’ house and stayed away from me while I was symptomatic and contagious.”
Spezza’s ability to find a positive out of a negative situation has been a trademark of his career and it has been put on display during his tenure with the Maple Leafs.
While suspended, Spezza was among the first players on the ice to help the goalies with their drills. He always had a smile on his face, despite wearing a gray extras jersey, a branding of sorts that indicates that you are not part of the team’s immediate plans.
His return to the lineup is imminent. It’s just a matter of finding out when that next game will take place. The NHL officially postponed Toronto’s game at home against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday. The Leafs don’t have another game on the schedule in 2021 and the extra days should aid in helping the club wrestle with new roster rules, thanks to a concurrent wave of COVID-10 outbreaks between their team and their AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies.
The Leafs held practice on Monday with the above mentioned players and newcomer Matt Hellickson on defense.
Hellickson is on an AHL-only deal and the Maple Leafs were granted special permission by the NHL to allow Hellickson to participate in order to have six defensemen take part.
Based on the speed of the recoveries, it’s possible the Leafs could see three more players return to the fold for practice on Tuesday.
Defensemen TJ Brodie, Travis Dermott and goaltender Jack Campbell entered COVID-19 protocol on Dec. 18, as did head coach Sheldon Keefe and assistant coach Spencer Carbery.
Marner ‘feeling good’
Mitch Marner took part in his second consecutive practice with the team and didn’t look at all out of place compared to anyone else on the ice Monday.
Out since Dec. 4 with a shoulder injury sustained after a collision with teammate Jake Muzzin, Marner is optimistic about his chances of being ready to play in the team’s next scheduled game on Jan. 1 against the Ottawa Senators. “Hopefully,” Marner said. “I’m not going to rush anything obviously, but I feel very good out there.”
Marner also spoke about the incident with Muzzin and the exchange the two shared on the ice following the hit.
“I think if you ask him, Jake is probably one of my best friends on the team,” Marner said of Muzzin. “We had some nice words about it and then it’s back to loving each other and just joke around about it. Obviously, nobody wants to try and hurt their teammate or hurt one another.”