How the Oilers ‘Freed Jesse’: Inside Puljujarvi’s winding journey back to Edmonton

Edmonton Oilers' Jesse Puljujarvi (13) celebrates a goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets (Jason Franson/CP).

EDMONTON — Getting a COVID-positive Jesse Puljujarvi home from Seattle was never going to be as easy as hiring a little charter company — say, Buffalo Airways — to get the job done. But nothing about The Bison King is ever small, from his six-foot-four frame, to his 1000-watt smile, to his persona as a folk hero in Oil Country.

When news of Jesse Puljujarvi’s return to Edmonton made its way on to Twitter Sunday evening, the response from Oilers fans was greater than news of a postponed game or an injured player.

And it wasn’t just fans who were wondering when Puljujarvi would make it home from Seattle, where he produced a positive COVID-19 test on the morning of Saturday’s game against the Kraken.

“Players were calling me and saying, ‘You’ve got to do something, Bob. Anything,’” said Oilers Chairman Bob Nicholson. “I said, ‘We’re trying…’”

Puljujarvi arrived in Edmonton aboard an unstaffed Medivac plane from Seattle on Sunday evening. Just he and two pilots — no medical crew required.

However, the story of how the Oilers “Freed Jesse” is a long and complex one, beginning with the sports axiom: Never leave a player behind.

“What are we saying to Jesse, and what are we saying to our players?” Nicholson asked. “It’s nice to be able to do that as an organization. The last thing you ever want to do is leave a player behind.”

When Puljujarvi came up positive on Saturday, Nicholson went to work on finding a charter company that could get him back to Edmonton as soon as that evening, knowing that Puljujarvi would not be allowed to board the team charter after what would be a 5-3 win at Seattle. The trail led Nicholson to one Graham Williamson, the C.E.O. of LIFESUPPORT Air Medical Services, Inc., a company that operates five medivac planes which transport ill or injured Canadians home from across the globe.

They have worked in Afghanistan, for the United States Department of Defence, and with travellers all over the world.

“Just last week we got a call for someone who was COVID positive on a cruise ship in Antarctica,” said Williamson to Sportsnet. “This is happening every day, all around the world. The Leafs have got it going on. The Hurricanes have got it going on. The Senators…”

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Puljujarvi’s was a routine flight in some ways. But in others, not so much.

For instance, Williamson had to secure pilots willing to fly with a COVID positive patient.

“Jesse is sitting five feet away from a pilot,” he explained. “There is no door — it’s an open cockpit — and Jesse is COVID positive. So it’s a matter getting the cockpit crew to understand and deal with the risk.

“Imagine if I said to you today, ‘I need you to go pick up Jesse in your car and he’ll be in the backseat of your car for the next two hours.’ Would you be good with that?”

Fortunately, Williamson secured two pilots who were game. Then he had to deal with the good folks at Canadian Border Services.

“My concern with Jesse was that he is not a Canadian citizen. He is here on a work permit,” said Williamson.

Every Canadian has a right to arrive on a flight like this one — for the sum of $20,000 — and be brought home no matter what their state of health. But Puljujarvi, however beloved as he is by Oilers fans, is in fact not a Canadian.

“Had Canada Custom not been agreeable, they had every right not to allow this,” Williamson said. “The borders are essentially closed (to non-citizens). He’s a Finn, and does not have the same constitutional rights that you and I have as Canadians.”

So here we are.

How upside-down has this COVID world become? Now we’re thankful for our dear and understanding Custom and Border agents…

But give them credit: all they required was that Puljujarvi have a secure quarantine program in place when he landed.

“Canada border services was quite agreeable, very collaborative, and it was one phone call. That was it,” Williamson said.

In the end, The Bison King has re-joined his herd, and this cult hero can spend Christmas in Edmonton with his girlfriend Monica, folk hero Golden Retriever Jaffa, and perhaps a discreet visit to his brethren at the Elk Island Park buffalo reserve just east of Edmonton.

For a player who wanted out of Edmonton not long ago — and for whom the team had regrets over drafting — this love affair has been unique both on and off the ice.

“You know where he was, and we both came back together… It’s so good,” Nicholson said. “What I like is the passion that our players had, saying, ‘We’ve gotta get him home. We’ve gotta get him home.’ That speaks volumes to how much he means to his teammates.”

Let’s face it, Seattle is no place for Puljujarvi anyhow.

The Western prairie. That is where the Bison King roams.

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