Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck made it very clear on day one of the team’s training camp at Bell MTS Iceplex – he is no anti-vaxxer.
But the former Vezina winning netminder says he would have preferred to have had a choice in the matter of getting vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to Canada.
Following an opening day scrimmage that included surrendering a nifty shootout goal to highly-rated forward prospect Cole Perfetti, 28-year-old Michigan native Hellebuyck confirmed he was diagnosed with COVID on Aug. 20.
“When I got it, it was right about the time I started feeling camp-ready. I was really excited about where the summer was heading, and then I got (COVID) and it kinda set me back two weeks,” said Hellebuyck. “It was a little bit of a surprise, but it’s still going around. I was healthy enough to get through it. I have no spleen so I thought I might be compromised but I thought I handled it the way I was projected to handle it.”
Hellebuyck says some of the symptoms he experienced included really bad headaches and really bad fatigue that prevented him from moving around a lot. But he says he tried to stay as mobile as he could and also spent some time in the sauna as part of his recovery strategy.
“It took about a week, week and a half for the fog to fade and I started to feel like myself again,” said Hellebuyck. “Now I’m pretty excited about where I am and where we’re heading.”
But despite that optimism. the Jets goalie says he was not entirely on board with having to get vaccinated on the heels of recovering from the virus. “It felt very forced on me. Just where I am with my health, I had just gotten COVID and gotten over it, and then I had to get the vax,” explained Hellebuyck.
“If I had gotten some time to choose, maybe I would have gotten what they recommended three months later. I would have liked our PA (Players Association) to help us a little more with that because pay was coming into it. We weren’t going to get paid if we had to quarantine.”
Hellebuyck says he would have even preferred having a bubble option as a potential choice, but understands the end goal is to make things better for everyone. And with that experience now in the rearview mirror, his focus is entirely on having a chance to win the Stanley Cup.
“I think we just have a slightly different mindset coming in,” was Hellebuyck’s answer to being asked if there was a changed attitude in getting prepared for the season following the acquisition of defensemen Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt.
“We know we’re getting older, I’m not getting younger. Blake (Wheeler) says it all the time, once you become that older guy you look back and you wished things would have went differently – so now is our time for that to be different.”
And one thing that will be different for Hellebuyck this season is his backup netminder. Eric Comrie takes over the position held for the last three years by Laurent Brossoit who signed as a free agent with the Vegas Golden Knights this summer.
There are concerns – at least from media and fans – about Comrie, who has a grand total of nine career NHL starts, an unflattering 4.08 goals-against average and a .873 saves percentage to go along with a 3-5-0 record.
But Hellebuyck says he is in complete support.
“I’m a big advocator for Coms because I think he’s a great goalie and works hard and he’s a great team guy,” said the Jets’ number one puck stopper who figures to get somewhere between 60-65 starts this season. “I got asked that last year and I kinda made up a number, to be honest.”
Hellebuyck wound up starting 45 of Winnipeg’s 56 regular-season games and went 24-17-3 with a no-decision to go along with a 2.58 GAA and .916 saves percentage – almost identical to his career stats of 2.63 and .917 going into his 7th NHL season.
“I was telling my family and friends, that I’m really excited for this season. I’m always excited to come back and play hockey, but this one I feel like we’ve really sold the farm and we’re going for it.”