As it turns out, there was a very good reason why Neal Pionk wasn’t able to rejoin his Winnipeg Jets teammates on the ice until Tuesday’s practice at Canada Life Centre.
And it’s a very good bet that Pionk would have much preferred the opportunity to skate on Sunday and Monday, instead of having to wait a couple of extra days for a mandatory negative COVID-19 test result within a 72-hour timeframe to re-enter Canada after spending the holiday break in his home state of Minnesota.
“I took a test on Dec. 23 and by Christmas Day still had not received those results yet. And I knew I had to be back in Winnipeg by the 26th,” Pionk said when asked for a recap of events that led to his delayed return. “So I packed up the truck and left on Christmas Day and drove as close to the border as I possibly could, to hopefully wait for some results.”
Pionk says option B was trying to find a test he could take in Grand Forks, N.D., with the understanding it would be next to impossible to schedule a test on Christmas Day.
“So that wasn’t an option. So we had to stay in a hotel, still waiting for results,” said the 26-year-old from Hermantown, Minn., which is about a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Grand Forks. “Still couldn’t find a COVID test, whether that wasn’t an option or all the appointments were already booked up.”
Pionk says he was even turned away from the ER at the hospital in Grand Forks before finally striking pay dirt on Monday.
“We found a place that turned a PCR test, they gave us the results back in about 30 minutes. And then once those results came in we were able to cross the border, alongside driving in a blizzard to get to Winnipeg.”
Pionk says the results finally came in late Monday night from the original test taken on Dec. 23. And of course he caught an earful from his teammates when he arrived in the dressing room on Tuesday morning.
“‘How was the vacation? Hope you had fun. Hope you went somewhere warm,'” were a sampling of the friendly verbal shots Pionk remembers hearing. “I got the whole works today, which is fair.”
The Jets are not scheduled to return to action until Sunday afternoon in Vegas after earlier games in Nashville and Dallas last week, home games versus Minnesota and Chicago this week, and a Friday Night visit to Calgary on New Year’s Eve were all postponed by the NHL as a result of COVID-19 concerns. Pionk believes the team’s final 52 games will have the same feel as last year’s compacted schedule during the pandemic-shortened season.
“And on top of that, making a push for the playoffs,” added the Jets blueliner.
Winnipeg currently sits in ninth place in the NHL Western Conference, three points behind Edmonton and Colorado for the two wild-card berths.
The Jets will now play their next game on Sunday afternoon in Vegas (Jan 2) followed by stops in Arizona (Jan. 4) and Colorado (Jan. 6).
The NHL has also postponed Winnipeg’s home games on January 8 and 10 versus Seattle and Minnesota as a result of attendance restrictions imposed on Tuesday by Manitoba health that would have limited attendance to 250 spectators for those games.
Forwards Andrew Copp and Kristian Vesalainen remain in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol, and according to a Jets spokesperson, will not be considered eligible to return to the lineup until the Jan. 2 game at Vegas.