WHL doing the COVID-19 shuffle

Darren Steinke

Special to the Herald

The Prince Albert Raiders are fortunate to have played all 32 games that were on their schedule to date, but we might soon see how long that lasts.

On Tuesday morning, the WHL issued a release stating team activities for the Edmonton Oil Kings, Moose Jaw Warriors and Red Deer Rebels were paused as a result of multiple players and staff being added to the WHL COVID-19 Protocol List. That resulted in a total of five games involving those clubs being postponed.

Since returning from a traditional league-wide Christmas break, the WHL has been doing the coronavirus shuffle.

The first indication that the WHL schedule after the Christmas hiatus could likely have bumps came on December 27, 2021 about 65 minutes before the first games after the break hit the ice. Before those first games took place, the WHL issued a release that introduced the WHL COVID-19 Protocol List and noted 36 players and hockey operations staffers were on the list at that time.

Persons are added to the list if they exhibit symptoms or test positive for COVID-19. The WHL has elected to not list names that are on the WHL COVID-19 Protocol List.

Concerns have risen with the emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, which is also supposed to be milder than all other strains of COVID-19.

Two days after that WHL release was made, the remainder of world juniors held jointly in Edmonton and Red Deer were cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns.

That same day, the WHL postponed a game between the Portland Winterhawks and Tri-City Americans in Kennewick, Wash., due to the fact the regular goaltenders for both clubs entered WHL COVID-19 Protocols or sustained injuries.

It was also announced on Dec. 29, 2021 that the WHL was postponing four games hosted in Manitoba scheduled between last Saturday and this coming Saturday due to capacity restrictions in that province.

Under current Manitoba public health orders that are slated to expire this coming Tuesday, the Brandon Wheat Kings and Winnipeg Ice can only have 250 people at their home games. Last Thursday, the Wheat Kings elected to play at Westoba Place without fans falling 3-2 after a tiebreaking shootout to the Edmonton Oil Kings.

A total of four other postponements were caused when four players from the Swift Current Broncos were placed on the WHL COVID-19 Protocol List last Thursday and 14 players from the Lethbridge Hurricanes were added to that same list last Saturday. Both clubs paused team activities.

Canada’s other two major junior leagues are facing COVID-19 bumps too dealing with public health orders and positive tests. The OHL has dealt with multiple postponements since returning from its Christmas break on Dec. 28, 2021.

The QMJHL hasn’t resumed play since last hitting the ice on Dec. 18, 2021 before going on Christmas break. At the moment, the QMJHL is slated to return to the ice with two games on Jan. 19.

Unfortunately for the WHL, the COVID-19 shuffle likely won’t go away any time soon so expect more disruptions.

Often ignored Sawchenko makes NHL debut

Zach Sawchenko fulfilled the role of the true good guy who made it to “The Show.”

On Sunday, the 24-year-old Calgary product made his NHL debut for the San Jose Sharks. With the Sharks trailing the Penguins in Pittsburgh 6-1 after the first period, Sawchenko took over in goal for San Jose at the start of the second.

He turned away 20-of-21 shots fired his way as the Penguins held on for an 8-5 win that included an empty-net goal.

In the WHL, Sawchenko is best remembered for playing four outstanding seasons with the Moose Jaw Warriors from 2013 to 2017 appearing in 177 regular season games posting an 88-65-16 record, a 3.11 goals against average, a .908 save percentage and nine shutouts.

Despite his stellar play, Sawchenko wasn’t getting much of an NHL look due to the fact he stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 185 pounds. Most NHL teams look for goalies to be at least 6-foot-3 in height.

Sawchenko decided to not play his 20-year-old season with the Warriors electing to join the University of Alberta Golden Bears in the U Sports ranks and begin making steps on the education front for life after hockey.

In two seasons with the Golden Bears from 2017 to 2019, Sawchenko appeared in 34 regular season games posting a 28-4-1 record, a 1.74 goals against average, a .919 save percentage and five shutouts. He helped the Golden Bears win the David Johnston University Cup as U Sports champions in 2018.

During his time in the WHL and U Sports, Sawchenko was seen as a gem of a person on both circuits. He has a soft spot for goalies who are smaller in size.

Sawchenko joined the Sharks organization and started playing with their minor league affiliates in 2019-20.

It is heartwarming to know he overcame his perceived lack of size and was able to get into an NHL game.

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