Hitmen put team's COVID pause behind them, eye to end year strong

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The Calgary Hitmen are ready to rock.


After two weeks off due to a COVID case that shut down team activities, they’ll return to game action Friday hoping to pick up where they left off in the shortened Western Hockey League schedule.

“It was super tough,” said Hitmen veteran defenceman Jackson van de Leest. “I know that with our team we felt that we were just getting into the swing of things before this happened.

“It was hard, kind of, to derail that and go sit in the hotel for awhile.”

The unforeseen pause added to what’s already been — at the very least — a challenging season.

First, it was a four-month delay to start the Western Hockey League season.

Then came a wholesale move of team activities — to live the year out at Grey Eagle Resort and to play their home games at Tsuut’ina Nation’s Seven Chiefs Sportsplex.

What followed was a shortened training camp and the understanding there would likely be no major championship in play at the end of the schedule.


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“Yeah . . . it’s been an uncharacteristic year to begin with,” said Hitmen head coach Steve Hamilton. “We’ve kind of rolled with the punches throughout the ups and downs. And I think the guys have handled the latest curveball pretty well.”

They did just that, spending a 14-day isolation period in their rooms at Grey Eagle in hopes of putting behind what was one positive test for COVID-19 within the team cohort.

“I think anybody would have been naive to believe at some point that COVID wasn’t going to affect us to some degree,” Hamilton said. “But we know for the most part, everybody in the world has persevered through this. I think adapting to the challenges has been the biggest takeaway from our group this year.”

The hits just kept on coming during the isolation period, when the Canadian Hockey League announced the cancellation of the Memorial Cup — junior hockey’s most coveted title — for the second straight spring.

And then shortly after came official news that there will be no WHL playoffs, so no league banner for which to play.

“The guys did a decent assessment on their own of the logistics of that,” Hamilton said. “It just didn’t make sense. I just think with all the restrictions in place and the travel — you look at our province alone and the landscape is changing on a daily basis. But I think the guys have understood all along that this was going to be a developmental season.”

But after this latest COVID pause, was there any thought to simply suspending the rest of the campaign and settling into next-year mode?


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“I don’t feel like anybody felt that way,” said van de Leest. “We’re kind of here for one thing only, and that’s to play games and develop this year. We had a premonition coming in that playoffs might be out of the picture, but all the guys are still super excited to be here and be able to play games.

“We’d been hearing the number of cases coming out of the provinces. So we knew it would be difficult for the WHL to be able to formulate some kind of plan for playoffs. It’s everyone’s dream to win in the playoffs and have a great group of guys do super well together.”

However, that’s not happening this year.

“It sucks,” continued the hulking 19-year-old rearguard. “This whole year has been a disappointment, in general, for guys that want to be playing 68 games a year. It’s everything that we’ve been working towards for the 16 years we’ve all been playing hockey. So it sucked not to be able to have a full season, but we understand.

“We’re grateful for everything we can have. Now we’re super excited to get back to playing. I don’t think our goal has changed — everyone wants to keep playing the best hockey we can.”

The hopes are the Hitmen (6-6-2) can return to their feisty ways against the rival Lethbridge Hurricanes (7-8-2) in a three-game weekend set.

The opener goes Friday at Seven Chiefs (2 p.m., watch.CHL.ca/Sportsnet 960 The Fan alternate feed). They will then rematch Saturday in Lethbridge (7 p.m., watch.CHL.ca) and again Sunday at Seven Chiefs (7 p.m., watch.CHL.ca/Sportsnet 960 The Fan).


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“They’re a team that’s similar to us,” said van de Leest. “We play a lot alike — gritty hockey, hard-working and maybe not as much skill as some of the other teams. But we play the right way and get the job done. I personally look forward to playing them — I can elevate our game to match their intensity.”

But the best thing is they’re playing once more with the end of the schedule rapidly approaching.

“It’s a whole lot different than not knowing,” Hamilton added. “The guys have persevered. They’ve done a good job getting through all this. They’ve been an absolute joy in terms of their resiliency and their ability to keep moving forward.”



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