Rasmus Sandin was in disbelief when he learned he tested positive for COVID-19.
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ defenseman was back on the ice a couple of weeks after a knee-on-knee hit from Winnipeg Jets’ defenseman Neal Pionk. He was inching closer to a return when a positive COVID result forced him to take a step back.
Sandin had to isolate for ten days, despite not getting any symptoms from the virus.
“I didn’t feel one thing and I felt like I had a lot of energy,” Sandin said of his COVID-19 diagnosis.
Sandin joined the COVID-19 list on Dec. 21 along with forwards Ilya Mikheyev and David Kampf, goaltender Petr Mrazek and goaltending coach Steve Briere. All of them came off the list and joined the team for practice on Thursday.
Sandin was fortunate that the injury didn’t turn out to be as bad as it looked. A timeline of two-to-three weeks meant Sandin likely would have returned by now had the season not been paused.
The additional time allowed Sandin time to work up the strength in his leg.
“If I have to see something positive from this COVID is that it gave me an extra week to ten days to recover my leg completely,” Sandin said.
Sandin didn’t look out of place in his first practice with the team on Thursday. He skated on the team’s first pair on the left side of teammate TJ Brodie. Sandin was also on the point for the team’s first power-play unit, a position he occupied in the latter portion of last season.
Mitch Marner, like Sandin, was also injured prior to the pause and also appears ready to make his return. Both players have said that if called upon, they can be ready for the team’s next game.
“With them having their injuries and us not having our practice time you’re going to take it a day at a time with them,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said of Sandin and Marner. “But both players seem to be progressing well.”
With each day that passes, the Leafs’ COVID list continues to decrease. William Nylander is the only forward remaining on the list. Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin and Timothy Liljegren are the remaining defensemen.
Earlier this week, the NHL revised its guidelines for isolation while in COVID-19 protocol. Players are now allowed to leave isolation after five days instead of ten if they produce a negative test and are asymptomatic. The move is in lockstep with the Center for Disease Control in the United States. In Canada, teams are still required to abide by Federal and Provincial standards. When practice began on Thursday, ten days of isolation was still required. Ontario announced later than afternoon that they were also moving to five days, effective immediately.
Provided they are asymptomatic, Rielly (Dec. 23), Nylander (Dec. 24) and possibly Muzzin (Dec. 26, depending on timing) could return to practice on Friday.
Liljegren practiced with the team on Dec. 26 and 27, but landed on the COVID-19 list on Dec. 29 and would likely not be available to play against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday (if that game still goes forward).
“He was a little bit pissed,” Sandin said of Liljegren’s reaction to testing positive for COVID. “I was just trying to cheer him up a little bit. Toss a couple of bad Swedish jokes at him. He’s handling it well.”
The Maple Leafs are scheduled to host Ottawa on Saturday night. If the game goes ahead, it will be their first since defeating the Edmonton Oilers 5-1 on Dec. 14. The Senators were forced to cancel practice on Thursday for precautionary reasons, but are scheduled to resume practice on Friday morning.
Later in the day, the Government of Ontario reduced capacity for sporting events to 1,000 fans or 50 percent, whichever is fewer.
Already dealing with the logistical challenges of going from 100 percent to 50 percent, Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment announced that the 1,000 tickets will be unsold.
That means the pool of tickets will be made available to friends and family of the teams and the league as mandated by the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement.
With restrictions to be reassessed in three weeks, there will be massive revenue drawdowns from playing these games in Canada without fans.
In addition to the financial penalties, there are competitive disadvantages that come from having reduced crowds at home and different COVID-19 isolation procedures in different jurisdictions.
The NHL has already postponed a bunch of Canadian dates due to fan restrictions in an effort to recoup revenue. More postponements may be on the way.
“We’re just grateful we get to come to work every day, no matter what the circumstances are,” Keefe said. “It’s on us to make the best of it.”