Blackhawks’ COVID outbreak finally retreating as players, coaches return

After peaking at five players and four coaches on the COVID-19 list, only Henrik Borgstrom remains out for the Blackhawks.

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After a stint on the COVID list, Riley Stillman returned Tuesday to the Blackhawks.

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The impact of the Blackhawks’ recent COVID-19 outbreak on their roster was obvious. 

Patrick Kane, Riley Stillman, Jujhar Khaira and Henrik Borgstrom missed games, and Jonathan Toews also was briefly unavailable.

But the impact on the Hawks’ coaching staff might’ve been even greater. With four people in the COVID protocol and unavailable, coach Jeremy Colliton and assistant Sheldon Brookbank were basically the only high-ranking coaches left.

“In the preparation for the games and in the meetings, everyone was taking on a little bit more [responsibility],” Colliton said Tuesday. “And just on the bench, with the feedback to the players, it [was] happening less. Me and Brookbank are putting the players on the ice, so it’s hard for us to give the feedback immediately or between shifts when trying to get the right guys out there. 

“When we have less guys on the bench, it’s just tougher.”

The outbreak finally appears to be abating, and not a moment too soon for a team that is fully vaccinated but desperately needs a winning streak.

Borgstrom is the only player or coach left on the COVID list. Kane returned and scored three goals in the Hawks’ long-awaited victory Monday, and Stillman and Khaira reappeared at practice Tuesday. 

“For sure, it’s a lift,” Colliton said. “Kane stepped in and really helped last night, but we’ve had some guys out who can [also] help and give us some minutes. . . . It just increases the competition for who’s going to play and how much.”

Assistants Tomas Mitell and Marc Crawford, goalie coach Jimmy Waite and video coach Matt Meacham are back now, too. 

During their absences, Chris Kunitz was pressed into behind-the-bench duties — temporarily becoming “more full-time than he usually is,” Colliton said — while AHL goalie coach Peter Aubry filled in for Waite and analytics coordinator Mary DeBartolo filled in for Meacham. The staff wore masks for all interactions with players, an eye-catching flashback to last season’s requirements.

Kane said he experienced mild symptoms for the first couple of days but otherwise sat around his house, counting the minutes till he could lace up his skates again.

The NHL’s COVID protocols remain strict, even for vaccinated individuals. Those with confirmed cases must isolate for at least 10 days beyond the start of symptoms and at least 24 hours beyond the end of symptoms.

“You’re not allowed to leave your place,” Kane said after the game Monday. “[You] can’t really do any conditioning or anything like that — they want you to stay away from that stuff. I just tried to do some light stuff, nothing too crazy, but just so I was coming back and feeling somewhat OK. It was obviously big for me to be able to skate [Monday] morning, just to feel it out.”

Stillman said he also tested positive but was asymptomatic.

“It’s really nice to get back and get some legs underneath me and some reps with the guys and be around everybody,” he said.

Stillman’s return sets up an interesting defensive-personnel decision. Wyatt Kalynuk (sprained ankle) and Caleb Jones (strained wrist) have been skating together for weeks, and Kalynuk participated in full-team practice Tuesday for the first time since training camp. Colliton said Kalynuk is “closer” but “not close enough to really say what day” he’ll be ready.

Their eventual returns will give the Hawks nine defensemen to sort through. And although sending prospect Isaak Phillips back to the AHL would be one easy step, determining the other two odd men out will be more telling.

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