“Fear was not installed”: Senators head coach Smith remembers fateful trip to California

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D.J. Smith noticed something when his Ottawa Senators arrived in northern California last month.

There weren’t many people around.

“At that time, no one knew what we know now,” the team’s rookie head coach said on Wednesday. “Fear was not installed. “

This fear, of course, is above the COVID-19 pandemic that swept the world, leaving personal and economic difficulties in its wake.

Six members of the Senators organization, including five players, would end up being positive, making the team the epicenter of the NHL for the disease.

In early March, however, there were still many unknowns.

Of course, Santa Clara County officials, where the San Jose Sharks play, had advised against holding large public rallies, but three games were played at the SAP Center – one against Ottawa – before the NHL suspended his season on March 12.

“In San Jose, it was kind of weird,” Smith said in a video conference with reporters. “The guys knew, but [was] no way to say he would have reached that level, certainly for us anyway. ”

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The Senators played March 7 against the Sharks and then had two days off before a straight game against the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings further south.

“Everyone in Anaheim and Los Angeles lived normal lives,” said Smith. “You saw the strange person with a mask.

“But the world as we know it today was far away [the same] at the time. “

There’s also no way of knowing for sure when the Senators in question contracted the new coronavirus, but they played at the Staples Center against the Kings on March 11, some 24 hours after the NBA Brooklyn Nets – who had four positive players for COVID -19 – appeared in the same place against the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Colorado Avalanche, who had three positive players to bring the total number of NHL players to eight, faced off in San Jose on March 8 and Los Angeles on March 9.

“They have all been there”

The Senators announced last week that everyone in the organization has recovered, while team radio commentator Gord Wilson revealed on March 27 that his test also came back positive.

NHL staff and players have been asked by the league to isolate themselves since March 13, a directive which has been extended until April 15 and should be pushed further.

“The good thing is that not everyone who had it had horrible symptoms,” said Smith of his players. “As athletes, they have all succeeded and they are all on the other side now. “

As for hockey, Smith was asked if he had time to think about his first 71 games behind the bench as an NHL head coach. Ottawa is in the midst of a complete reconstruction after narrowing its list to studs, but has promising young talent led by Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot, and should have two choices at the top of this year’s draft – whenever that happens .

“You always want to be better,” said Smith, who is back in Tecumseh, Ontario, with his wife and two children. “I am proud of the strength of our team. We were physical. We have not backed away from anyone. We worked.

“Culture has changed. The guys realize he’s a senator from Ottawa, it involves a work ethic, it means being on the team first. “

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Smith added that each time his players get back on the ice, whether it be to close this season or before the 2020-21 campaign, it will be time to move forward after setting the 30th league record at 25 -34-12.

“Our mentality has to change,” he said. “When you look at the best teams in the league … the Washington Capitals, the Boston Bruins, they expect to win every night.

“I have spoken to some of the young people who are going to be leaders in the future. There will be a time when we will have to take a step. We want it to be sooner [rather] that later, but it starts in your own mind. ”

Surreal experience

What could turn out to be Smith’s last game in 2019-2020 was also the last game before the NHL’s break – and a surreal experience.

“The guys knew an NBA player was positive,” said Smith. “There were questions as to whether we were going to play. We listened to President Trump on TV that night. There was certainly an atmosphere different from any other game I have participated in. “

“Once the NBA canceled its games, we knew we wouldn’t be far behind. “

He also had no idea how much the world – both for himself and his team with all the positive tests – would be changed in a short time in the middle of the pandemic.

“I realize much more today how serious the spread is, how it hits,” said Smith. “This disease spares no one.

“It doesn’t matter – actors and actresses, rich, poor – you have to make sure you stay safe. “

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