As all Toronto Maple Leafs fans know, the COVID-19 pandemic has suspended the 2019-20 NHL’s regular season. Arenas remain empty as people work globally to slow down the spread of a virus that daily causes deaths. Although most North Americans are following the rules of self-isolating with families and staying home as much as possible, the virus remains active and might be transmitted in a variety of ways. I personally encourage everyone to be as careful as possible – regardless of their circumstances.
I opened the post with that caution for two reasons: first, it’s always a good reminder to practice safety in the face of horrifying consequences; second, news about the pandemic struck close to home for the Maple Leafs because yesterday there was news that the great Borje Salming, King of Maple Leafs defensemen, just finished recovering from the virus.
In this post, I will report news of Salming’s personal battle with illness as well as how the virus has impacted and continues to impact the lives of other current Maple Leafs players. I will also take time to wish young William Nylander a Happy Birthday from myself and The Hockey Writers.
Item One: Borje Salming Is Living Proof that COVID-19 Can Be Conquered
Yesterday, on May 1, in a video from Sweden shared by the Hockey Hall of Fame, Maple Leafs great 69-year-old Hall of Fame defenseman Borje Salming shared his battle with a suspected case of COVID-19 that had hospitalized him.
He shared on the video that, “You can see that I’m feeling good now.” But he added, “This virus is really crazy.” Salming also shared with NHL.com that during the middle of April he was having breathing problems and he felt like he was dying when he was hospitalized. He reported that, when you get it, “You can’t breathe. And you know when you can’t breathe, you die.”
His message to hockey fans was simple: “So stay home, stay safe. It’s no fun to get it, so I’m lucky I’m home. But you have to be careful.”
Salming also took time to thank the doctors and nurses who treated him as well as all front-line healthcare workers everywhere. “You are the best. You’re so good, to take care (of patients) and put your life on the line. All the best to you guys. You’re the best.”
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As Maple Leafs fans know, Salming played all but one of his 17 NHL seasons with the Blue and White, and in 1973 became one of the first great European players to suit up in the NHL. He ranks third in games played with the team (with 1,099) and leads the Maple Leafs in assists with 620, as well as leading all defensemen in points with 768 and goals with 148.
Item Two: Jason Spezza Would Never Say This, But It Isn’t Fair
If I were Jason Spezza, I might wonder what I did wrong to have been treated so unfairly this season. When he signed on with the Maple Leafs at the NHL league minimum, fans like myself were excited – a veteran player who wanted one more chance to win a Stanley Cup and signed with his hometown team cheaply just for that chance. How good is that? Even better, the Maple Leafs would be facing the Ottawa Senators – the team Spezza had played for so many seasons – on home ice on opening night.
But, as Maple Leafs fans recall, Spezza was benched for the season’s opening game after then-head coach Mike Babcock made some lame excuse about Spezza needing more time to learn the special teams play. So sit he did, and quietly. He didn’t whine about it; as we’ve discovered this season, he showed himself to be both a class act and a solid professional. He’s, to my mind, value-added to the team.
Now, as the season winds towards some conclusion, there’s a chance Spezza might not get that opportunity to play for the Stanley Cup this season. For a veteran who’s nearing the end of his career, it might be one of his last chances to lift the Cup. Even worse, his chances evaporated not because his team played poorly but because some historically rare event – a pandemic of all things – suspended the season without giving him a chance. And, there’s nothing he (or anyone else) can do to stop it.
In his heart of hearts, he understands that saving human lives trumps playing hockey; still, if it were I, I’d have a niggling sense that destiny is being unfair. For Spezza, who’s played more than 1,200 regular-season and playoff games, but whose name hasn’t graced the Stanley Cup, it must seem like time is slipping away.
However, from what we’ve come to see from him this season, even if he doesn’t wear the Maple Leafs jersey next season, he’ll just say in an interview, “I’ve had a great career and I want to thank my teammates and the fans…” He’s right of course, but still.
Item Three: Happy Birthday, William Nylander
In my post two days ago, I wished now-53-year-old former Maple Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph Happy Birthday. Today, I wish young William Nylander Happy Birthday on May 1. He turned 24 years old.
It was a strong season for Nylander who worked hard to redeem himself after such a let-down season in 2018-19. However, he produced his first 30-goal season (31 goals and 28 assists for 59 points in 68 games). During last season, Nylander held out until literally the last minute before inking a contract, and when he came back he played poorly, only averaging one point every other game.
This season Nylander responded well. He played with confidence, got dirty goals in front of the net, and really produced on the power play. He scored 17 of his 59 total points with the man advantage. His career high was 61 points; and, if the NHL plays more games during the 2019-20 season, he should be able to pass that easily.
What’s Next with the Maple Leafs?
Maple Leafs fans and players wait for any word on the resumption of the season, and there seems to be movement in that direction. This past week, NHL’s head office sent out a memo that training facilities might open. That’s a start, and we’ll see where it goes.
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In the meantime, we would all be wise to follow the advice of the great Borje Salming – stay home and stay safe. You don’t want this virus; and, even if you’re young and healthy and can fight it off, it would be heartbreaking to transmit it to a loved one who’s immune-compromised.