CHL Notebook: Thunderbirds’ Barzal taken off ice amid mumps concern

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Mathew Barzal (Marissa Baecker/Getty)

The Seattle Thunderbirds are no doubt braced for the worst while hoping that Mathew Barzal only has the flu, as the mumps outbreak that has touched the hockey industry has affected the WHL’s best playmaker.

Barzal, the 19-year-old New York Islanders prospect who was integral for Team Canada at the world junior championship, took ill minutes before the Thunderbirds’ game last Friday. The centre was also kept out of action the following evening for a divisional game against the Portland Winterhawks, which Seattle won with Alexander True drawing into Barzal’s spot between wings Ryan Gropp (New York Rangers) and Keegan Kolesar (Columbus). The blog Taking Note reported Barzal was being kept “in isolation.”

Veering on the side of caution whenever any player or coach is feeling sickly has been part of the everyday reality of the WHL for close to a month, since the Brandon Wheat Kings had a player diagnosed on Feb. 7, and seven Medicine Hat Tigers players and coaches were confirmed. Late last month, the WHL advised teams to sanitize dressing rooms and equipment and to limit direct contact with fans. To give one a sense of how serious it is, after a game in Kamloops two weeks ago, arena security staff reportedly kept Gropp from having a post-game visit with his parents.

The hockey implications are fairly self-evident. Coming into this final week of the regular season, the Thunderbirds are one point ahead of the Everett Silvertips for first place in the U.S. Division. Everett also has a game in hand.

Coincidentally, two of Everett’s last four games are against the Victoria Royals, who also had to take preventive measures against mumps last Friday. Royals coach Dave Lowry, 18-year-old defenceman Ralph Jarratt and 16-year-old rookie defenceman Mitchell Prowse each had to be isolated from the team after exhibiting flu-like symptoms.

The viral disease is nothing if not persistent. Since symptoms take more than two weeks to develop, people who don’t know they have it can transmit it. Hockey players are particularly susceptible since they inhabit close quarters; the outbreak that has included players on the NHL’s Minnesota Wild and Vancouver Canucks is the second to affect the big league in four years.

Medicine Hat got through the outbreak and has clinched first place in the Central Division.

Nanaimo says ‘hard no’ to arena

Suffice to say, the Kootenay Ice remain a major junior hockey miniature of the Arizona Coyotes: they can’t stay, but have no place to go. On Saturday, 80 per cent voters in Nanaimo, B.C., decided against borrowing $80 million to build an arena. The Ice have already said it will be exceedingly difficult to continue on in Cranbrook, B.C., so this leaves the team in a holding pattern.

The populace in Nanaimo voted more against a huge capital expenditure than hockey. A new building isn’t a must for a relocating team. In fact, the three OHL teams who have pulled up stakes since 2013, the North Bay Battalion, Hamilton Bulldogs and Flint Firebirds, all moved into older arenas that simply required refurbishing.

Sea Dogs win one for Ollie

The Saint John Sea Dogs’ quest for the President’s Cup has become all the more loaded emotionally after defenceman Oliver Felixson was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma last week.

As is the case when any strong young adult faces a serious illness, there has been an outpouring of emotional support for Felixson, who is in his second season with the Sea Dogs. The Finland native turned 19 years old last Saturday and spent his birthday receiving messages of support from around the QMJHL.

The Sea Dogs, meantime, essentially clinched first overall a week early, winning 5-1 against the Charlottetown Islanders last Friday in the first game since the Felixson announcement. Saint John, whose equipment manager David (DK) Kelly has recently re-joined the team after fighting thyroid cancer, has reduced its magic number for clinching top spot to one win.

Always a silver lining

An encouraging potential OHL final preview it was not. The Erie Otters dismantled the Peterborough Petes 7-0 on Sunday in a rare late-in-the-regular-season matchup between conference leaders.

In a season where six Western Conference teams have more points than the Eastern leader, it’s an illustration of a lopsided league. Yet there doesn’t seem to be much of an appetite in the OHL for a re-alignment and/or adopting one-through-16 playoff format à la that of the QMJHL.

Sixty-goal scorer Alex DeBrincat (Chicago) managed not to score on a day when his teammates could do little wrong, ending his goal streak at a record-tying 19 games. Mike Ricci set the standard in 1988-89, so the Petes at least had the small satisfaction of keeping an alumnus’ name in the record back. So there is that.

Erie has a three-point lead over the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds for first overall with as many games to play. Peterborough is four up in the overall Eastern standings, although the Mississauga Steelheads will be the favourite to come out of the conference.

Canadian NHL team prospect of the week: Jeremy Bracco, RW, Windsor Spitfires (OHL)

Leaf Nation has brought its expectations for Bracco (No. 61 overall in 2015) a little more in alignment with reality. Like most skilled forwards scooped up in the second round, the ceiling involves some AHL time before blossoming into a complementary scorer. Bracco enters the final week on a seven-game point streak, with two goals and 12 points over that span.

New name to know: Christian Propp, G, Barrie Colts (OHL)

Propp is not exactly off the radar, but it bears noting that the rookie backup goalie on the rebuilding Colts has had a huge hand in affecting a rival’s playoff hopes. Propp, 17, earned his first OHL shutout by handling 33 shots during a 6-0 Barrie win against the North Bay Battalion last Saturday.

It was the second time in 10 days that Propp, a one-time fifth-round pickup in the OHL priority selection, had helped last-place Barrie defeat North Bay. Those losses have put the Battalion’s 17-season playoff streak in jeopardy.

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