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Jets, Canucks face potential COVID issues as NHL season gets underway

The 2020-21 NHL season got underway Wednesday with a tribute to front-line health care workers.

The 2020-21 NHL season got underway Wednesday with a tribute to front-line health care workers.

A video tribute to the health care professionals fighting the COVID-19 pandemic was shown at the empty Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia before the start of the season opener between the Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins. 

Players from both teams put their inter-state rivalry aside for a few minutes before the opening faceoff, banging their sticks on the ice in support as the video was shown at the empty Wells Fargo Center.

Referee Kelly Sutherland addressed the players before dropping the puck.

"Gentlemen, we've all waited with excitement for this day," he said. "Welcome to the start of the 20-21 season.

"Best wishes to all of you. Stay safe, stay healthy, let's have a great battle."

Less than five minutes into the first period, former Calgary Flame Mark Jankowski scored the first goal of the season to put the Penguins up 1-0.

Before the puck was dropped in Philadelphia, potential COVID-19 concerns popped up in two Canadian markets.

Winnipeg Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers was not at practice on Wednesday, with coach Paul Maurice saying he was away because of COVID-19 protocol.

It is unknown if Ehlers will be available Thursday when the Jets open their season against the visiting Calgary Flames.

"I think him playing (Thursday) night is in the range of possibilities," Maurice said.

Meanwhile, two Canucks players are self isolating under the NHL's COVID-19 protocols and were deemed unavailable for Vancouver's opening game at Edmonton on Wednesday.

The NHL released a list of players unavailable due to COVID-19 protocol, and it included Canucks defenceman Jordie Benn and forward J.T. Miller.

Players held out under the league's COVID-19 protocol do not necessarily have the illness.

As questions were asked about Benn and Miller, the Canucks geared up to play a hockey game at night.

“You can feel it today. It’s game day. It’s all business, to a point — we still have some fun in the morning with our guys. But it’s game day," Green said. "It’s what you play for, what you coach for. The best part of playing is the games, the best part of coaching is the games. And it’s nice to be back, for sure.”

In pre-game warmups of the Vancouver-Edmonton game at Rogers Place, the Oilers skated out in their dark blue third jerseys, with their usual numbers but the name Moss on the back of every sweater to honour the memory of Joey Moss. 

Moss died in October at age 57. He was born with Down syndrome and through the years became a fan favourite while working for both the Oilers and Edmonton's CFL team, a city icon and an inspiration to many in the cause of inclusivity. 

Before puck drop, the players paused to honour the memory of former coach John Muckler, part of the team's 1980s Stanley Cup dynasty run. Muckler died earlier this month at age 86. 

Robert Clark then sang the national anthem standing about 30 rows up at centre ice. As he did so, the giant video screen replayed video of Moss in the stands cheerfully belting out the anthem in years past. 

Edmonton hosted the NHL's Western Conference playoffs and league's final two playoff rounds in a COVID-19 resistant "bubble" last summer, culminating with the Tampa Bay Lightning whooping, hollering and parading the Stanley Cup in the empty arena. 

Earlier, the Toronto Maple Leafs tweeted "Game On" before dropping the puck at home against the Montreal Canadiens.

There was a lot of the usual pomp and circumstance for the curtain-raiser between the Maple Leafs and Canadiens at Scotiabank Arena, save for a boisterous crowd of 19,000 strong packed to the rafters. 

The first six rows from the ice were covered by tarps mostly adorned with the logos of corporate sponsors, but music blared pre-game, the public address announcer went over the usual safety precautions for spectators, and Leafs winger Mitch Marner even flipped a puck into the stands as if there were fans waiting a souvenir at the conclusion of warmups. 

The 48th Highlanders, who have performed at every Toronto home opener since Maple Leaf Gardens opened in 1931, kept the tradition alive — albeit virtually. 

Front-line workers, including doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters and teachers, introduced the Leafs' starting lineup before anthem singer Martina Ortiz Luis performed "O Canada" from the empty stands instead of at ice level. 

It's January instead of October and there will be no fans instead of 19,000-plus, but the hype machine still was whirring ahead of the Habs-Leafs all-Canadian division opener at Scotiabank Arena.

"These new guys are going to get to understand the Montreal-Toronto rivalry pretty quickly, especially with the division format," Gallagher said. "It will be a lot of fun for us players to be a part of. It's going to be competitive and emotional. If you don't enjoy it, I guess you're playing the wrong sport."

The Leafs released a video ahead of the opener, with visuals of virtual fans and the Toronto skyline setting the scene for what promises to be a unique night.

The NHL is kicking off its abbreviated 56-game season as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread in North America.

The league says it his put comprehensive health and safety protocols in place in hopes to minimize exposure to the coronavirus.

But unlike the league's restart of the 2019-20 season that saw teams play in isolated environments in the hub cities of Toronto and Edmonton, teams will host games in their own arenas and travel for road games.

And there have already been cracks. The league said 27 players had confirmed positive tests over training camp, including 17 players on the Dallas Stars.

As part of the league's plan to play during the pandemic, all seven Canadian teams will play each other exclusively in the one-time-only North Division.

South of the border, the Detroit Red Wings named Dylan Larkin captain and Mark Stone got the 'C' with the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday.

In Florida, the Panthers got star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky back for the first time since training camp started. Bobrovsky was previously declared unfit to play.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 13, 2021.

The Canadian Press