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Stars return to practice after COVID-19 outbreak

Facility was shut down following positive tests, first three games postponed

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

The Dallas Stars practiced Tuesday for the first time since their facility was closed Friday because of an outbreak of COVID-19.

Coach Rick Bowness said 14 players were out, and the Stars had one session as a result.

"We had three really good days [of training camp]," Bowness said. "We were all very happy with the conditioning of the players and the progress we made. Then you take five days off, and those first couple of drills, the hands weren't working as well as they had been."

The Stars last practiced Wednesday. They were off Thursday and canceled practice Friday before the NHL announced that six players and two staff members tested positive for COVID-19 and that their facility would be closed for further testing and contact tracing.

The NHL announced Tuesday that 27 players among nine teams tested positive during training camp (Dec. 30-Jan. 11), including 17 Stars, most of whom are asymptomatic and all of whom are recovering without complication.

The NHL does not identify players who test positive for COVID-19 during camp.

The Stars who did not participate in practice Tuesday included forwards Jason Dickinson, Radek Faksa and Joel Kiviranta; and defensemen Miro Heiskanen, Julius Honka, Esa Lindell and Jamie Oleksiak.

The NHL postponed the Stars' first three games: at the Florida Panthers on Thursday and Friday, and at the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday, which would have been a rematch of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final (Dallas lost the best-of-7 series in six games).

The earliest the Stars can open their season is at the Lightning on Jan. 19. Dallas' next scheduled game is against the Nashville Predators at home on Jan. 22.

"We don't know if we're playing [Jan. 19] or not," Bowness said. "That gives us six practices to [Jan. 19], eight to [Jan. 22]. So we've got a lot of work to do, it's as simple as that, with the players we have, and we're trying to cover things without jumping too quickly from one area to another. Today was a good day, especially after five days off the ice. The guys worked hard."

Goalie Anton Khudobin practiced for the first time after missing the start of camp because of immigration issues. He had surgery to fix a nerve issue in his right arm in October, then caught COVID-19 in Russia.

"It's not easy," Khudobin said. "I'm telling you right now, it's not easy. First of all, it's hard to breathe. I didn't have it really bad. They didn't have to put me on an oxygen tank; I was breathing normally. But let's say you're going upstairs to the second floor or third floor, you're going to catch your breath. It's hard."

Khudobin said he was out for three weeks, and when he started skating again, it wasn't easy for another week. He said he lost his senses of taste and smell for a month and a half.

"You're eating mashed potato, you don't know if it's mashed potato," Khudobin said. "You know what you're eating, but you can't taste it."

Forward Jamie Benn, the Stars captain, said the players had to try to do their part.

"I mean, crazy times right now," Benn said. "Obviously we have many players who are with COVID right now, so just try and be as safe as possible."

Bowness said the Stars have been following NHL protocols, wearing masks, physically distancing, and shortening meetings to make sure players don't sit too long.

"Listen, we did everything right last week and we still got hit with this thing," Bowness said. "So, you know, to sit here and say there's a perfect way to do it, there's not. You ask for discipline from your players when they leave the rink … but somehow this thing got into our room, and we're dealing with it the best we can."

Bowness said he and his staff are unfamiliar with some of the players who are available and have told them there is a good chance to play because of the uncertainty surrounding the virus.

"They have practice time now to show us what they can do, for us to get comfortable with them," Bowness said. "The chemistry part is going to be the hardest thing, to figure guys out, who looks good with who, and that's a day-to-day process thing.

"So listen, as camp goes on, we're going to be figuring a lot of things out. There's no question. But that's the hand we're dealt with, and we just roll with it, man, and we'll make the best of it."

Bowness couldn't help but chuckle.

"We'll adapt, and we'll just roll with what each day brings us," he said. "That's why my plan is in pencil, so I can erase it and come up with a new plan."

Photo credit: Jeff Toates/Dallas Stars

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