TORONTO — Jason Spezza remains optimistic.
After a bad week for professional sports that saw players across North America test positive for COVID-19, the veteran Toronto Maple Leafs centre is confident the NHL is still on course to resume its pandemic-hit 2019-20 season this summer.
And in a roundabout way, Spezza believes the recent rash of athletes contracting the novel coronavirus could wind up as a blessing.
“It probably becomes a little bit of a reality check for making sure everybody’s doing everything possible hygiene-wise to make sure that we’re not spreading it,” the 37-year-old said on a conference call Tuesday. “We knew there was going to be positive tests, so it’s probably good there’s been some positive tests because it gives us some practice on how to deal with it.”
Spezza has been taking part in small, voluntary group workouts with strict health and safety measures as part of Phase 2 of the NHL’s return-to-play protocol as the Leafs begin preparations for a potential best-of-five qualifying round series with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Always one in the know with everything hockey, he’s also involved in talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association to hammer out the crucial details surrounding training camps, which are scheduled to begin July 10, and the eventual resumption of play in two as-yet-named hub cities.
“I’m pretty confident that once we get into hub cities we’ll be able to do a good job of keeping (the virus) out,” he said. “Getting there is going to be the challenge and that’s where it takes a little bit discipline on our part as players to make sure we don’t derail the plans.”
Last week, however, felt a lot like March 11 — the day Rudy Gobert of the NBA’s Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19 and everything changed in the sports world.
The Tampa Bay Lightning announced Friday they were closing their practice facility after three players tested positive. The NHL said in all 11 of more than 200 players tested between June 8 and June 19 came back positive. The Leafs, meanwhile, declined to comment on reports that centre Auston Matthews tested positive in his home state of Arizona.
Professional hockey, baseball and golf all saw athletes test positive for COVID-19.
Despite the troubling news, Spezza is staunch believer the NHL can succeed with its 24-team format in a pair of hub cities away from the general population.
“I put trust in the league and the (NHLPA) that we’re going to come up with a bubble scenario that will keep everybody safe,” Spezza said. “The biggest challenge would be getting to that point, because we’re all not in a bubble scenario right now. My confidence towards heading to a bubble scenario is pretty high once we get there.
“It’s just a matter of making sure that we get there.”
ALFIE DESERVES HALL CALL
After watching his former linemate get passed over the last three years, Spezza wants to see Daniel Alfredsson get voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Wednesday.
“He’s a guy that didn’t win in the NHL, but won a lot internationally,” Spezza said of the former Ottawa Senators captain. “Foundationally in Ottawa, he’s the guy that really helped bring that club to respectability, and did so much for the community.”
Alfredsson, who registered 444 goals and 1,157 points in 1,246 games, played 17 seasons in the nation’s capital before leaving for one final campaign with the Detroit Red Wings in 2013-14.
“We had great chemistry on the ice, we had great chemistry off the ice,” said Spezza, who was Alfredsson’s teammate for 10 seasons. “I hope he gets the respect because he’s a guy that, in my opinion, deserves to be in the hall.”
LIFE IN A BUBBLE
As a father of four daughters, Spezza said being quarantined away from loved ones in a hub city won’t be easy, but something his family is willing to sacrifice.
“There’ll be some tears involved,” he said. “They understand that daddy’s got a dream of trying to win a Stanley Cup, and there’s not too many more years left here.
“My kids and wife, thankfully, are very understanding of that.”
LOOKING FORWARD TO BIGGER GROUPS
The NHL is allowing Phase 2 groups to expand from six to 12 players this week for on-ice workouts — something Spezza said will be beneficial with an eye towards training camps.
His pod up to this point has included fellow Toronto forwards Kyle Clifford and Kasperi Kapanen, but there’s only so much you can accomplish with five skaters and a goalie.
“Bigger groups gets us closer to being ready to play,” he said. “The more guys we get on the ice, the more it feels like hockey, and the more it’ll shorten the runway.”
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press