California players spending season in Europe return home early after COVID-19 outbreak
The closure of North American hockey leagues in rapid succession as the coronavirus/COVID-19 spread this spring captured the attention of hockey fans everywhere.
But what about the nearly two dozen players from California and Nevada who play pro hockey in Europe? Many of them have young families and faced an added layer of challenges when their seasons ended.
The navigation of these premature returns home due to the spread of COVID-19 led to some interesting stories.
What follows are some of those.
Timing is everything
Shane Harper was wrapping up a second productive season in the Swedish Hockey League, but his mind was elsewhere in mid-March.
That’s because his wife Megan was back home in upstate New York a few weeks away from her March 29 due date to deliver the couple’s first child. She’d joined Harper in Sweden for the first months of his season before returning home for the duration of her pregnancy.
Harper’s Orebro HK team had just completed its season when word arrived the SHL would first delay – then cancel – its postseason on March 15, making it one of the last league’s to shut down.
With a pending ban on travel from Europe about to be enacted in the United States, Harper, a 31-year-old from Valencia, wasted no time getting back.
“It was scary,” the longtime California Wave player said. “I flew back within 24 hours. I got out of there fast to be with my wife. Most of my teammates left the following Tuesday (March 17).”
The timing for Harper, who played 14 games for the Florida Panthers during the 2016-17 season and nearly 400 games in the American Hockey League before going to Europe in 2017, could not have been better.
Megan went into a lengthy labor and gave birth to daughter Haven on March 21. Haven subsequently required a heart procedure and spent 10 days in the hospital. Haven and Megan are doing well now and are back at home, Harper reported in mid-April.
“I don’t think I would have made it back if it wasn’t for the coronavirus,” he said. “If our season hadn’t ended when it did, I don’t know what would have happened.”
On the other side of that coin was Mitch Wahl and his wife Kelly, who had to navigate a return from Germany with their newborn son Brixton (pictured).
Brixton was born on Feb. 5, near the end of a season that saw the Wahls start off in Slovakia before landing in the tiny town of Crimmitschau, Germany. That came on the heels of two years in Austria, including a championship season with Klagenfurter AC in 2019.
“Our main priority was finding a good birthing situation,” Wahl said. “We had just that. The health care in Germany was great.”
That helped ease the Wahls’ minds as news of the virus’ proliferation across Europe spread.
“It was starting to get a bit crazy,” said Wahl, a former Wave, Anaheim Jr. Ducks and Los Angeles Jr. Kings player from Seal Beach. “It wasn’t all that far from Italy, and we heard what was going on there.”
The German league DEL-2 cancelled its season on March 10, giving the Wahls a bit more of a cushion for returning.
But there was one catch.
“Brixton needed a passport,” Wahl said.
That was secured, and the family was able to fly back to Southern California on March 18th.
“The first few days of travel (after the Trump administration announced restrictions on foreign nationals traveling to the U.S.) sounded like they were madness,” said Wahl, 30. “Our travel was great.”
That’s saying something given the itinerary included a stop in Amsterdam before the 11-hour flight to Los Angeles – with a not-even seven-week-old baby.
“Our flight was pretty much empty,” he said. “Fortunately, the baby slept for much of it. We were able to sit in a row with a wall in front of us so we could hook his basinet to that.
“Think about it. Twelve bags, a newborn and having to fly across the world. We’re very, very thankful everything worked out.”
Absence makes the heart grow fonder
In between again being one of the SHL’s top scorers and capturing the third Champions League title of his illustrious career in Europe, Lake Forest native Ryan Lasch was keeping an eye on the news.
“We thought this might blow over, but then you hear Switzerland was postponing games, then other leagues started canceling games, and then seasons,” he said. “We began to think it was only a matter of time before it would affect us.
“As it was, Sweden was one of the last leagues to do it.”
Lasch’s Frolunda HC team was in the situation as Harper’s team, gearing up to commence a play-in round to earn a spot in the SHL’s quarterfinal round. Not that the playoffs appeared likely to happen.
“It was a weird way to end things,” said the 33-year-old Lasch. “We played our last game at home in an empty arena. It was so quiet, it felt like a pickup game. Before that, we were talking about how it was potentially the last game in Frolunda.
“It was just a weird atmosphere. I’ve never experienced that in 10 years of pro hockey.”
While Lasch said the complication for his family pales in comparison to that of his West Coast brethren, including Frolunda teammate and fellow Wave alum Rhett Rakhshani (Huntington Beach), there still was one.
Lasch’s wife Jasmin is from Finland and always returns home to see family after his season is completed. That was no different this time, but the question remains. When will she be able to rejoin him in California amid all the uncertainty?
“We have to figure out that game plan,” he said. “She doesn’t have a green card so at most she can stay 90 days. Because the season ended so early, she went home. We’re not sure when she’ll be able to fly back to the States.”
Still, Lasch is taking it all in stride.
“We’re apart at the beginning of every offseason,” he said. “Some people think it’s odd, but it works for us and helps us spend time with our families.
“It will work out, but I’m looking forward to seeing her again. That’s for sure.”
Other players, such as Rakhshani and fellow Swedish leaguer Jonathon Blum (Long Beach), 31, decided to have their wives and young children fly back to United States in early March.
“They had no problem getting back, and everything was relatively smooth,” said Blum, a veteran of 110 NHL games with the Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild and one of the SHL’s top-scoring defenseman for Farjestad. “We thought it was for the best not to risk it.
“Even my flight back wasn’t bad at all and I returned on the 20th.”
— Chris Bayee
(June 19, 2020)