Kevin Fiala arrived at Xcel Energy Center for morning skate on March 12 as one of the NHL’s hottest players. He had 14 goals and 26 points over an 18-game stretch as the Wild worked itself into playoff contention.
Still, the 23-year-old winger had an inkling that night’s game against Vegas might not happen.
The NBA had just suspended its season after a player had tested positive for COVID-19 — an illness caused by a novel coronavirus that was declared a pandemic earlier in the day. Fiala hoped maybe the NHL could survive one more week.
But after taking one step into the Wild locker room, he was confronted with a much different reality.
“They told me to turn around,” Fiala recalled. “I actually didn’t even change. Just take a U-turn home.”
That afternoon the NHL paused its season as much of the sports world shuttered amid an outbreak that was spanning the globe. Players were instructed to self-quarantine and while the logistics were unclear, the hope was the league would restart at some point.
Now, more than two weeks later, that potential remains vague.
Fiala had been hunkering down in Minneapolis with his girlfriend, Jessica Ljung, and their Pomeranian, Foxi, but with the NHL in a holding pattern, they decided to leave Thursday for Sweden, where Fiala spends his summers.
And despite all the uncertainty, the native of Switzerland is focused on getting back to work and resuming a prolific season that was abruptly halted.
“It doesn’t really matter how, just that we are in and we take it from there,” he said. “I’m still positive about that we are going to play this season, and I really, really hope so.
“So, that’s my thought right now. I will be really sad if it’s done for the season, but I just try to think positively.”
Heartbreak and disbelief
Fiala felt himself in a state of shock during the first few unmoored days.
He anticipated the break lasting maybe two weeks; until then, he’d stay in shape to be ready to return. But eventually his perspective changed.
“It was kind of a stupid thought by me to think that now when I think back,” Fiala said. “… Right now, what’s been going on and everything, it seems like it’s going to be at least two more months.”
As the sadness set in, he dwelled on the ramifications for the team. The Wild was rolling, winning eight of 11 games and going 15-7-1 since mid-January to occupy the first wild-card berth in the Western Conference after its last game played. It was only one point out of the second wild card when the shutdown extinguished the Wild’s momentum.
“We were so hot lately,” he said. “If this wouldn’t have happened, I think we would have a great chance to make the playoffs and to make an impact this year.”
Since the Wild has already played 69 games, Fiala doesn’t think the team would need much time to prepare to get back on the ice. He hadn’t seen any of his teammates during this layoff as of early last week, but the group stays in touch through text messaging and FaceTime. Disbelief is still everyone’s reaction.
“It’s always bad timing for such a thing,” Fiala said. “But the health is always in front, the No. 1 thing. So, we understand that the league did the right thing.”
Turning it around
In becoming a catalyst for the Wild’s second-half climb, Fiala also turned into the poster boy for what might have been.
Like the team, Fiala struggled to find his stride at the beginning of the season — missing time because of injury and getting healthy-scratched twice. Through his first eight games, he had only one point, and boasted just eight goals through December. This slow start came on the heels of a 19-game debut with the Wild the previous season in which Fiala registered only three goals and four assists after a trade from the Nashville Predators.
By February, though, Fiala flipped a switch; during the last 18 games before the shutdown, he had the third-most points in the NHL. His four-game winning goals (including the first regular-season overtime winner of his career in his last appearance March 8 in Anaheim) were tied for first.
“I was very confident, and the confidence didn’t just disappear,” he said. “It just took off. But I gotta say that it was very helpful that the team was doing so good. My teammates were so good, so it was easier on that way.”
He had finally gotten comfortable after being acquired for Mikael Granlund at last season’s trade deadline, and then signing a two-year, $6 million contract before the season. And clearly Fiala’s speed, skill and shot are a rare combination in the NHL, let alone on the Wild.
The team sat 13-1 when Fiala recorded multiple points in a game, which he did in a career-high five straight outings for the first time in franchise history. His 54 points overall lead the Wild and are the most he’s had in the NHL for a single season; his 23 goals tied his career best.
“Especially after last year, a lot of up and downs, and to have this season what I had — especially the last few months — it’s been very, very enjoyable,” Fiala said. “For sure never been that happy in my whole career. Never been that confident about myself, either, so everything is on top — or was on top — before this happened.”
Just the beginning
Before he headed overseas, Fiala spent his downtime on walks and working out by sprinting and jumping.
Aside from keeping tabs on the news, he was watching “Shark Tank” and playing cards and Monopoly.
“Kind of boring, I guess,” Fiala said. “Like everybody else.”
Initially, Fiala didn’t go back to Europe as soon as NHLers were given the green light to travel because he wasn’t sure he’d be able to re-enter the U.S. But now if the NHL starts up, he is sure he’d make it back in time.
Forwards Mats Zuccarello and Joel Eriksson Ek and defenseman Jonas Brodin have also gone home.
Although Fiala’s family is in Switzerland, he left for his offseason base in Sweden to train. In his mind, he’s still in-season and will follow NHL protocol when he arrives by staying inside even though Fiala said he hasn’t been sick.
And whenever it’s time to play again, Fiala is confident he will pick back up where he left off.
“I have no doubt about that,” he said. “I had a great season two years ago, so last year was just a step back in my head. It was just one bad season, if I can say that. Now I can just kind of forget about that year.
“I know who I am, and I think this is who I am — what I was the last few months here.”