By GLENN HIBDON
GTR Sports Writer
These are the times that try men’s souls. Even hockey coaches. Tulsa Oilers skipper Rob Murray would tell you so. His ECHL team must not only face wicked slap shots and body checks on the ice, but the invisible invasion of coronavirus. If the Oilers beat a skating foe, the other is always lurking, ready to strike.
Murray recently experienced just how fickle COVID-19 can be. Twelve of his players were quarantined over a two-week period, forcing the Oilers’ boss to scramble in bringing in five new skaters overnight. When both Murray and assistant Zac Desjardins were also sidelined, the two hunkered down to coach games by video connection.
It’s all part of the weird, wacky world that hockey, and sports in general, have become thanks to the pandemic. Perhaps the thing for fans, coaches and players to do is cope the best they can and enjoy the limited access available. It could always have been worse.
“No, this hasn’t ruined our season. Quite honestly, our expectations were this was going to happen,’’ Murray said of the unpleasantness. “Surprisingly, I didn’t know it was going to hit us this hard. We didn’t know we wouldn’t have enough guys to play. Before this happened we had a good lineup and had gone on a five-game winning streak.’’
It all seemed to fall apart after a trip to Rapid City for a three-game set Jan. 15-17. The Oilers front office thinks the team encountered the virus there, leading to a nine-game winless streak. Even leading scorer Dan Moynihan was out of the lineup during the skid. Then, the coaches were forced to do their jobs while watching a television screen.
Oilers equipment manager Tony Deynzer and athletic trainer Steve Lintern replaced Murray and Desjardins behind the bench. Neither had coaching experience.
“We were in unchartered territory and we had to come up with a scenario where we could keep going,’’ Murray said. “Tony had to deal with bringing in players and getting contracts ready and signed. There were a lot of things I do on game days that I take on myself and it hurt for me not to be there.
“I had (captain) Adam Pleskach handling the forwards on the bench and I was in touch with him quite a bit. Justin Hamonic is a veteran defenseman and he handled the defense. Before games I did some video chatting with the team about scouting opponents.’’
Isolated from his family, Murray said he spent most of his time in Desjardins’ apartment watching television and sleeping.
“Neither one of us got sick and a lot of the guys had mild or moderate symptoms, but we went a week without a full team practice and that’s tough, ’’ said Murray. “They shut down the facility and the guys missed out on conditioning. They came back tired.
“Mentally, I missed my life as a hockey coach. I missed going to the office everyday and when I couldn’t go to work, I felt I lost my job.’’
For a 10-day period, Murray joined a plethora of ECHL coaches uprooted from their normal place of employment. Of 26 teams, only 14 are actively playing. Many clubs in the east were shelfed for the season due to stricter regulations on COVID-19 and owners shuttered their arenas. The BOK Center was limited to 25% capacity and the Oilers were averaging 2,664 fans in early February, fourth best in the league.
The ECHL instituted other rules, including playing a 72-game regular-season schedules until early June, playing in two conferences and allowing four teams from each conference to qualify for postseason play. All series will be best-of-five.
Meanwhile, the Oilers have tried to put their players in a “bubble,’’ meaning they are no longer to have contact with fans or front office personnel. After games, media must telephone the locker room to talk to Murray or his players. Players receive coronavirus tests at least twice a week.
Fans must wear masks and social distancing is mandatory. With all the new rules in place, indeed, this is definitely not your grandfather’s hockey league.
However, there could still be a ray of sunshine remaining in an otherwise frustrating season for the Oilers.
Thanks to the recent influx of new faces, Murray discovered the talents of Nick Minerva and J.C. Brassard.
“They are both playing really good hockey for us,’’ said Murray. “We were down on firepower and they have made an input. We have our lineup back now.’’
Maybe, just maybe, Tulsa’s COVID-19 nightmare will become only a bitter memory.
By GLENN HIBDON