Courtesy of Perry Bergson, The Brandon Sun
The Brandon Wheat Kings have landed.
The Western Hockey League club’s staff and 24 players reported to the hub in Regina on Saturday. They underwent COVID-19 testing for the first time on Sunday.
Wheat Kings defenceman Neithan Salame is happy hockey is finally near.
“It’s such a relief to be back with the guys and back with the roommates,” Salame said. “It’s obviously nice and the hockey part is going to be really exciting to be back playing games. It’s been almost a year. It’s been a long time coming for all of us.”
The players are living in four-room pods linked by a common area at the University of Regina’s Paskwaw Tower dormitory. Two bedrooms share a bathroom.
For now, the players must remain in quarantine in their rooms, but once they all test negative, they will be able to spend time in the common area with their three roommates.
The first possibility they can take the ice together is on Thursday, and that’s also potentially the day they can begin to socialize within their pod.
On Sunday, a bunch of the Wheat Kings met online to play Call of Duty together.
“Even though we don’t see each other face to face, we’re all talking,” said forward Jake Chiasson, who is living with Marcus Sekundiak, Reid Perepeluk and Jonny Lambos.
Lambos shopped at Costco before entering the hub, with the foursome splitting the bill, so they have some extra stuff to feast on.
“We brought a lot of snacks and a lot of food,” Chiasson said. “We can’t see each other yet but we have cards and a couple of board games. When we are able to come out of our rooms from quarantine, we’ll be able to sit down as a room and have some fun at night.”
Immediately after arriving, Chiasson put his clothes away, made his bed and hooked up his electronics, which will prove to be very important.
With a lot of time to pass, players will be searching for ways to fill the hours.
“It’s a lot of gaming and I have my university course to work on too,” Salame said. “That’s about it. We’re doing some Zoom meetings on yoga and workouts as a team. We’ve been passing the time well. It gets boring sometimes but that’s why you bring the video games and stuff like that.”
The players have seen their roommates briefly in the common areas, but not any of their other teammates. In fact, Salame isn’t sure yet where the other Wheat Kings are living, other than Braden Schneider’s room is next door.
Salame also has Riley Ginnell, Connor Ungar and Lynden McCallum in his living quarters.
“It’s better than being alone in your own room,” Salame noted.
Meals are delivered to the rooms three times a day, at 9 a.m., 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., with no input from the players on what they receive. Those times will change once games begin on March 12 for the seven teams from Manitoba and Saskatchewan in the hub.
Both Salame and Chiasson look at the measures they’ll have to take philosophically.
“It’s different for sure in this bubble,” Salame said. “There are going to be a lot of protocols. I think the hockey thing stays the same, you go out there and do your job. As an individual and a team, you go out there to win games and that’s the goal all the time.
“Outside of the hockey, that’s the tough part for all of us. I think once we get our legs back under us, I think it’s going to be easy.”
The other biggest adjustment may not be that bad, Chiasson added.
“Pretty much anytime we’re not on the ice, it’s mask time,” Chiasson said. “That’s how life has been for the past couple of months have been anyway.”
The league had previously set potential startup dates in October, December and January, but the pandemic ultimately forced them to cancel their plans each time. The Central Division began play on Friday, with the U.S. Division targeting March 19. The B.C. Division still hasn’t been cleared to resume.
Chiasson said finally getting the news from Wheat Kings general manager Darren Ritchie last month that they were going to play was a huge relief.
“I’ve been waiting for that text for a while and there were some false starts with the league where they couldn’t quite make it to the starting date they wanted to,” Chiasson said. “Now that we’re here, you can feel how excited everyone is from the Zoom calls and talking to a couple of teammates.
“I think now that we’re here and know it’s in front of us and we’re guaranteed to play, it’s going to be so fun.”
“This is the longest that I think all of us have been without playing,” Salame said. “It’s been a year since they sent us home and cancelled our games so I think everyone is really excited and itching to get back on the ice, even to start practising and get back to our systems and get some puck touches in.
“I think everyone is relieved that we’re here.”