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Former NHL players glad to be home from Europe amid coronavirus pandemic

Darling, Fehr 'got out of there as quick as we could' when leagues canceled season

by Tracey Myers @TraMyers_NHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

Scott Darling and Eric Fehr are like most hockey players these days.

Darling, a former NHL goalie, and Fehr, a former NHL forward, are in self-quarantine because of the coronavirus, waiting out the pandemic. 

But they know they have no more hockey to play this season, with their respective European leagues having been shut down in March. They also are happy to be back in North America, having been playing so close to Italy, one of the countries hit hardest by the virus. 

"I could tell you every detail in my house, because we haven't left in a while," Darling said with a laugh. "But it's been good." 

Darling, who played in the NHL last season with the Carolina Hurricanes, was with Innsbruck of Erste Bank Eishockey Liga in Austria when the league canceled its season March 10. Innsbruck is about 20 minutes from the Italian border.

"For me, personally, I'm just grateful I got home and didn't get stuck in Austria," said Darling, who was in his first season in that country.

Fehr, who was in his first season in Switzerland playing for Geneve-Servette of the National League, can relate. 

"The league ended up getting canceled on March 12, and we flew home on the 15th of March," said Fehr, who played in the NHL last season with the Minnesota Wild. "We got out of there as quick as we could."

Geneve-Servette is based in Geneva, an hour from Italy. As of Thursday, there had been more than 25,000 deaths in Italy due to the coronavirus, the most in Europe, according to Reuters.

Unsettling as it may have been for Darling and Fehr to scramble to get home with flights being canceled, Michael Lawrence has had a more harrowing ordeal. The goaltending coach for HC Lugano of the National League is home in Ottawa in the final stages of the coronavirus, having tested positive March 31; Lugano is about 30 minutes from the Italian border.

For Darling, Fehr and Lawrence, overseas hockey went from enjoyable to nerve-wracking. Coronavirus concerns led to games being played with no fans, canceled seasons, worries about getting back home and, in Lawrence's case, dealing with the virus itself. 

"We were scheduled to play Zurich in the first round [of the playoffs]," said Lawrence, who coached Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins for two seasons (2017-19) with HC Lugano and has worked with Chicago Blackhawks goalie Malcolm Subban. "But there was just a ton of uncertainty. So we did what we had to do, I guess. You come into work and you get your guys ready to try and play in a series. But unfortunately, the series didn't happen, and the league finally broke down. … It was a pretty scary thing."

Erste Bank Eishockey Liga was in the quarterfinals of its playoffs when it canceled the season. Fehr's and Lawrence's teams were preparing for the playoffs when the National League canceled the season, the same day the NHL paused its season due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

But before the cancellations, the virus and its effects had led to dwindling attendance and the suspension of on-ice traditions.  

"In Europe, you shake hands after every game, and they implemented that we couldn't shake hands after games anymore, stuff like that," Darling said. "We have a team in Bolzano [HC Bolzano], which is in Northern Italy, and nobody wanted to go play them. We were like, what can we do? We don't want to go there. But we got eliminated, and that ended our season."

Fehr was out with a groin injury when Geneve-Servette played Lausanne in Geneva on Feb. 28. He said there was more of a practice atmosphere than that of a game. Lawrence described the same bizarre feeling when HC Lugano played Ambri-Piotta, its National League rival, in its regular-season finale Feb. 29. 

"You [usually] couldn't fit enough people in the building, and the chanting and the singing, it's absolute chaos, it's so cool to be a part of it," Lawrence said. "So now there's none of that, right? It was so unprecedented, so strange to watch that. Really, really strange times."

Still, when March began, teams continued to practice and prepare for the postseason. Fehr said practices were intense, but the feeling at the rink was weird.

"Everyone came in with a new story or a new idea of what they thought was going to happen," Fehr said. "There was a lot of whispering going on around the room from who was hearing what, and we were all just trying to figure out what was going on. There were a lot of league meetings going on during the week, and we were waiting for those meetings to finish in the dressing room before we'd go home on some days. It was a really unique feeling."

Once the seasons were canceled, the focused turned to how the players would get home. Darling traveled by himself in early March; his fiancée and their dog had returned to Chicago in January. Fehr and his family got back to Winnipeg on March 15, three days after the National League season was canceled.

"We couldn't book a flight until we heard the league was officially canceled, and it took a few days to get an open flight," said Fehr, who was traveling back to Canada with his wife and three children, ages 6, 3 and 1. "We were lucky enough to get on one and got home without any trouble, but that was when [Canada] Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was talking about tightening up the borders and making sure everyone was coming home from abroad, so it definitely made us a little bit nervous."

In mid-March, guidelines from the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control did not call for the public to wear masks except for those who were sick or coughing. Lawrence said about 30 percent of the passengers on his flight to Toronto on March 14 wore masks. Fehr said about 10 percent wore them on his. Neither Lawrence nor Fehr and his family wore masks, but they all felt fine at the time. 

The flights themselves were smooth. Lawrence said most of his stress came before he boarded the plane.

"They're canceling flights, there are all of these policies being made at the time from our government, from [Switzerland's] government, and you don't know if you're going to be on a plane on Saturday or not," Lawrence said. "Our team did a really good job, our general manager, Hnat Domenichelli, did a good job of making sure that foreign coaches and players were looked after the best that the organization could, and they did a great job of getting everyone home safe and sound."

The stress didn't end when they got home. Fehr said he and his family began to feel ill about a week after they got back to Canada, and they were tested for the coronavirus. Geneva, where the Fehrs resided, was one of the Swiss cities most affected by the virus; according to statista.com, there were 4,852 confirmed cases there as of April 22, second to Vaud (5,154).

"Because we were coming from Switzerland back to Canada, they wanted to test to make sure we didn't have the virus," Fehr said. "But we all came back negative. That was a big relief for us, because where we were, there were a lot of cases in Geneva."

Lawrence started feeling ill two days after he returned to Canada and was tested for the coronavirus March 17; he was told March 31 he tested positive. By the time he got the results, he was feeling a little better. Lawrence said he had two bad nights when he experienced severe migraines and heart palpitations, but otherwise it felt like he had mononucleosis.

"Your energy level is zilch," Lawrence said. 

Lawrence said he is feeling much better. He still gets fatigued now and then, but he hasn't had a headache for a while. He is doing daily yoga and looks forward to life and work getting back to normal. That includes returning to HC Lugano; he has two years remaining on his contract. 

"Going through this, and hopefully on the fringe of this and getting through the end here," Lawrence said, "I think there's been way more trying times in our society and culture, and we will make it through this hardship."

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