One of the reasons Wild winger Kevin Fiala decided to leave Minneapolis for Sweden after the NHL season paused in March was to prepare for a return to action.
Unlike the United States, where communities have been mostly shuttered by stay-at-home orders and NHL facilities are closed to players except those rehabbing injuries, Sweden has looser restrictions in place to combat the coronavirus pandemic and rinks are open.
“I’m going to have a better chance to get back [to] my 100 percent than other guys that haven’t been on the ice for six or seven weeks right now,” said Fiala, who’s been skating Monday through Friday.
But after more than a month in Sweden, Fiala isn’t sure if the NHL will resume and currently has no plans to return to Minnesota despite wanting to continue to play.
“I don’t know what is going to happen, and it’s tough to make a plan where this is no plan,” Fiala said Wednesday during a video conference call. “So I’m just hoping and waiting. Just hoping that we are going back as soon as possible, and I feel I’m ready to go back whenever.”
After initially holing up in the Twin Cities, Fiala and his girlfriend, Jessica Ljung, and Foxi, their Pomeranian, decided to fly to Sweden, where Fiala spends his offseasons, at the end of March.
The flight from Minneapolis to New York had about only 10 passengers, which Fiala described as shocking, but the reality of the pandemic really sunk in when he landed in New York.
“Everybody had masks on and gloves on,” he said. “It was kind of scary.”
In Sweden, Fiala settled into a new routine where he practices with a small group of players, which includes a few other NHLers including Dallas defenseman John Klingberg.
Although teammates Jonas Brodin, Joel Eriksson Ek and Victor Rask have also returned to Sweden, Fiala hasn’t seen them but they do communicate. Fiala is in Gothenburg, and although he goes to the grocery store to buy food, he otherwise tries to stay home as much as he can.
“It’s not normal here, even if it looks like and seems like it,” said Fiala, a native of Switzerland. “The restaurants are open and everything’s kind of normal, but everybody’s scared of the virus and careful.”
On the ice, Fiala participates in drills and scrimmages. He feels he’s in shape and has been able to maintain his weight but figures he’d still need a few games to get back in a groove. Still, he’s not worried about that.
“I hope there’s going to be maybe some preseason game type of things because I think it doesn’t matter how much you play 3-on-3 or stuff like that in practice, it’s always different in a game with the hitting, with the battles,” Fiala explained. “I don’t know how long, but I don’t think for myself it’s going to take so long.”
Fiala was one of the most dynamic players in the NHL when the games stopped March 12, racking up 14 goals and 12 assists over his past 18 contests.
Overall, the 23-year-old has a team-high 54 points through 64 games; his 23 goals tied a career high.
“It’s very important for me to be consistent and just continue like I finished, if it continues or if it’s going to start next season,” Fiala said. “And I’m comfortable I can do that.”
His ascent coincided with a surge by the Wild, which sat one point out of a playoff berth when the league shut down. Fiala would be in favor of interim coach Dean Evason taking over the Wild on a permanent basis — “He’s a huge part of my career right now. I think he’s done a great job with us” — and continuing the team’s playoff push remains Fiala’s hope.
“I want to get back as quickly as possible and finish the job,” he said.
How feasible that is, however, remains unclear.
Asked if he’s received any indication of how he would transition back to the U.S., Fiala said he has “no idea” how that would happen.
“We’ve been wondering that as well,” he said.
He also wasn’t sure if he’d have any trouble returning to the U.S.
“Right now, the border is still closed, right?” Fiala said. “I hope they can make it work for us.”
Despite the uncertainty, scenarios keep swirling about what a relaunch could look like — from an expanded playoff field to multiple daily games in centralized cities.
Fiala said he’d be on board with whatever setup the NHL decides and even though he wants to get back to playing, he also realizes hockey isn’t all that matters right now.
“There’s a bigger thing out there, which is more important,” Fiala said. “There are people dying. There’s a terrible thing right now, which is more important, to stay healthy and to be safe. So, let’s see what the league is going to say.”