January 26, 2022

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Fit And Go Forward

This Panther had concerns about playing amid COVID-19. Here’s why he feels better now

Almost two months ago when plans for the NHL’s return to play had not yet entirely been set in stone, Anton Stralman was one of the players most vocal about his skepticism regarding the league’s desire to finish the season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stralman had good reason to be worried. He has had asthma his whole life and in 2011 he learned he has bronchiectasis, a condition which leads to the permanent enlargement of parts of the airways in his lungs. It can cause repeated lung infections, which he dealt with throughout his life before he got a treatment tailored for people with cystic fibrosis. It’s exactly the sort of underlying condition people worry about with the coronavirus pandemic still raging.

“Is it worth it?” the defenseman said to The Athletic last month. “I know everybody wants hockey back, but safety has to come first. And it’s a little bit worrisome, I can’t deny that. Even though most players are young and healthy, I’m sure there are players like me that have underlying health issues. I don’t know how my body will react if I get this virus.”

Almost two months later, Stralman has been on the ice for all of the Florida Panthers’ postseason training camp at the Florida Panthers IceDen and he’ll join the team when it travels to Toronto on Sunday to play in the expanded postseason.

When Stralman voiced his concerns in June, the NHL had just announced its return-to-play plan about a week earlier, slim on the details of how the league would make it work safely. As the NHL started to announce more and more details about the plan, Stralman started to feel better. He decided he was comfortable playing.

“I don’t think it was very difficult in the end. Once you saw the protocols and what was in place going into the hub cities, and the way it’s set up, I think we’re very well protected as players,” Stralman said. “My concern was probably more so for everybody else. I think most players are in the best shape possible and not a whole bunch of underlying issues, but it’s not just the players. There’s a big organization around it and I’m sure people are in older age groups and also with maybe underlying issues that needs to be into consideration. I hope that was on everybody’s mind and not just the safety of players, and that’s why I raised all those questions, really. Obviously, hoping and thinking that people in positions that are making these decisions had that in mind.”

Once Florida enters the “bubble” Sunday in Canada, regulations will ramp up even more. The Panthers will stay at the Fairmont Royal York and everyone they come into contact will be tested every day. Teams and NHL staff will only be allowed to go from the hotel to the arena, and back, save for a handful of league-approved excursions.

Stralman got a little taste of the NHL’s rules throughout training camp, too. Since camp began, players have been tested every other day, and they must pass temperature and symptom checks before they enter the Panthers IceDen. Seeing the safety the league is taking at team facilities has made Stralman even more comfortable.

“I do feel safe, although as crazy as Florida is right now it’s not like I’m out there. I’m at the rink and then I go home, and then once a week I go to the grocery store and that’s pretty much it,” Stralmans aid. “I feel like I’m in a spot where it’s fairly safe, and there’s no school and my family’s not even here, so that also made it a little bit easier from that perspective.

“I feel confident with the decision of being here playing and I’m looking forward to it.”

Florida Panthers goalie Chris Driedger (60) defends the goal from Boston Bruins right wing Ondrej Kase (28) as teammate defenseman Aaron Ekblad (5) skate for the puck during the first period of an NHL regular season hockey game at the BB&T Center on Thursday, March 5, 2020 in Sunrise.
Florida Panthers goalie Chris Driedger (60) defends the goal from Boston Bruins right wing Ondrej Kase (28) as teammate defenseman Aaron Ekblad (5) skate for the puck during the first period of an NHL regular season hockey game at the BB&T Center on Thursday, March 5, 2020 in Sunrise.

Aaron Ekblad misses practice again

The Panthers were without their top defenseman for the third straight day Saturday as they wrapped up postseason training camp at the IceDen.

Aaron Ekblad missed practice once again for an undisclosed reason, but Joel Quenneville continues to express optimism the defenseman will be good to go when Florida opens the qualifying round against the New York Islanders next Saturday in Toronto.

Saturday was a step forward for Ekblad and fellow defenseman Chase Priskie, who has also been sidelined the last three days. The two defensemen skated before practice in Coral Springs, Quenneville said, and could practice again as soon as Monday once the team arrives in Canada.

“They both skated prior to practice and they’re progressing,” the coach said. “We’ll see what Monday’s plan is with them when we get on the ice in Toronto.”

With Ekblad out, Mark Pysyk has slid back from right wing to defenseman to fill in for Ekblad alongside defenseman Mackenzie Weegar on the Panthers’ top defensive pairing. Priskie, who spent the entire regular season in the American Hockey League, is unlikely to be in Florida’s lineup, but is on the 30-man roster traveling to Ontario on Sunday.

The defensemen’s presence at the Panthers IceDen suggests their issues are not COVID-related, but the NHL is not allowing teams to disclose whether players have tested positive for the virus.

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