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How hockey's hiatus amid pandemic impacts Sabres' prospects, other leagues

Erik Portillo sat in Detroit Metropolitan Airport on Monday wondering how or when he'd be reunited with his family in Gothenburg, Sweden. The 19-year-old continued to monitor how the latest developments related to the coronavirus pandemic could affect his travel itinerary.

Any border closure in Netherlands would prevent Portillo from taking a connecting flight from Amsterdam to Gothenburg. Portillo, a Buffalo Sabres goaltending prospect, already moved his travel up two days in fear of the unknown.

"It has been a strange situation," Portillo said during a phone interview with The Buffalo News. "Of course, it’s kind of stressful when you don’t know the plans for the next couple of days."

Portillo was part of a mass exodus of junior, collegiate and professional hockey players who left their respective team's city after leagues across North America canceled or suspended their seasons in response to the global health crisis.

Championship hopes are crushed for some. Others are left wondering how more games could have helped them earn a scholarship or improve their draft position. No one is certain when they'll be able to skate again as social distancing will keep them in their homes for the foreseeable future.

The hockey world may never be the same, and players in levels below the NHL are losing important opportunities to develop and, in some cases, earn more money.

"It’s going to be nice to get home, but it’s not all happiness," Portillo, a 2019 third-round draft choice who was playing for the USHL's Dubuque Fighting Saints, said. "I feel like we had a good shot at having a great playoff run and great ending to the season.

"It’s unfortunate, but also it’s good because they have to get control of the situation. We have to see it in a positive way. There’s a reason for why it was done."

Portillo confirmed Tuesday that he arrived safely in Gothenburg, where he planned to remain indoors with his family. He's continuing a basic physical rehabilitation program to recover from a minor back injury and his offseason began Wednesday after the United States Hockey League officially canceled its season.

Dubuque's 33-13-2 record was second-best in the USHL when the league postponed its final 14 regular-season games. Before the suspension, Portillo was scheduled to resume skating Monday and planned to return to the lineup as early as this weekend. His 2.11 goals-against average and .915 save percentage ranked first and third, respectively, in the 16-team league.

He will attend the University of Michigan in the fall and, prior to leaving the country, stopped by the Ann Arbor campus to drop off some of his belongings in preparation for an extended stay in Sweden.

Dubuque, like teams in other developmental leagues, provided individualized off-ice workout programs to players, who were allowed to return home with parental consent.

"You lose out on hours on the ice, but everybody does," Dubuque General Manager Kalle Larsson said. "It’s not like you’re getting behind. ... You’re going to have to look at experience. College-bound players, which is most players in the USHL, this is the last time they’ll be in a real playoffs. College is one-and-done games, but this is a real playoff series in the USHL. If you’re going to college in the fall, you miss out on that experience and that’s pretty valuable."

Portillo is one of many Sabres prospects likely forced into an early offseason. Others who had their respective seasons canceled in Europe because of the coronavirus pandemic include Arttu Ruotsalainen, Miska Kukkonen and Oskari Laaksonen (Finland); Filip Cederqvist (Sweden) and Lukas Rousek (Czech Republic).

Former Sabres first-round draft pick Dylan Cozens is awaiting word on whether the Western Hockey League will be able to hold its playoffs, and Matej Pekar, who was playing for the Ontario Hockey League's Sudbury Wolves, had his season suspended.

Their respective teams have the potential for a long postseason run, and both players were expected to join the Rochester Americans following the playoffs.

The Americans' season also is suspended and players were granted permission to return to their permanent residence after the American Hockey League announced Monday it will not resume until at least May 1. Casey Mittelstadt, the Sabres' eighth overall draft pick in 2017, may not be able to complete an important season of development.

"On-ice development has stopped," Craig Button, TSN analyst and former NHL general manager, said. "The strength and conditioning coaches, and development coaches, this is an opportunity to be creative in different ways. From a physical standpoint, what can a strength and conditioning coach tell the players?

"They’re the experts in that area. From a player development point of view, being creative and giving them video. 'Here’s video of your shifts, someone who is comparable to you. Watch these. Understand these are elements that are going to be important in your ongoing development.' In the absence of being on the ice and in the absence of being together as a group, it doesn’t preclude you from being able to develop. It just needs to be done in different ways."

Western Michigan's Mattias Samuelsson, Minnesota's Ryan Johnson and Wisconsin's Linus Weissbach were Sabres prospects impacted by the NCAA's decision to cancel winter championships. Games and practices have been replaced by in-home workouts, which can be challenging because most athletes don't have access to a weight room or other equipment.

Western Michigan coach Andy Murray confirmed players were allowed to leave campus to return home and were equipped with personalized off-ice workout plans. However, Murray didn't want hockey to be the focus at home. Every player is assigned to a member of the coaching staff, who will maintain regular contact for updates on academics and the player's health and safety.

Western Michigan went 11-4-1 over its previous 16 games and, led by Samuelsson, a second-round draft pick in 2018, had the talent to go on a deep postseason run.

"We’re not even concerned about the hockey part right now," Murray said. "We wanted to make sure they’re safe and staying informed. You never want your season to stop. To me, it’s a matter of life right now. … This is the first major thing in their lives here now. It’s a doozy. As a competitor, you’re disappointed. But it wasn’t even a topic for us, to be honest."

In addition to having its season suspended, the United States National Team Development Program, which had 17 players, eight in the first round, drafted by the NHL last June, was forced to cancel a tryout camp for the 50-best players born in 2004. The camp was officially canceled and the team will be selected via conference call with regional scouts.

NTDP's Under-18 team traveled to Omaha last Wednesday, only to turn around and bus home following news of leagues suspending play. Additionally, the International Ice Hockey Federation canceled the Under-18 Men's World Championship, which was to be held next month at the NTDP facility in Plymouth, Mich.

"To watch those kids, there was certainly an inkling the event would be canceled, but not as sudden and dramatic as it was," John Wroblewski, coach of the NTDP Under-17 team, said. "Everything happened so suddenly. You’re looking at them and they have a dream in front of them that vanished. It’s really tough on those kids. It was a surreal moment for us as a program."

Like junior and college teams, the NTDP provided basic workout plans for players and encouraged them to follow recommendations by medical experts. Junior coaches also are wondering how fewer games will impact a prospect's stock for the NHL draft, which is scheduled for June 26-27 in Montreal.

The Sabres' ECHL affiliate, the Cincinnati Cyclones, were first in their division with a 38-17-7 record and recently added top goaltending prospect Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen when their season was canceled Saturday. The Cyclones played in front of no fans last Wednesday in Toledo's Huntington Arena and were confronted by their new reality postgame when they learned the NBA suspended its season following Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz testing positive for the coronavirus.

Every professional and minor sports league soon did the same.

Now, ECHL players aren't sure how they're going to pay their bills. They lost potential earnings in bonus money from a long playoff run. Players were paid through Monday and the average weekly salary is just over $600. The average annual salary is $16,940.

The team pays for players' housing during the season and offered to continue doing so following the cancellation of the season. However, players thought it was best to leave for home Monday after individual exit interviews, where staff and players sat at least six feet apart.

Some players aren't sure where they will live now because their permanent residences are being rented out or their apartment leases don't begin until a later date. This also impacts their ability to showcase themselves to the Sabres and other organizations.

Those hockey players, like many across the globe, lost valuable postseason games that could impact their development, as well as short- and long-term earnings.

"It’s one of those things you don’t know how to react to it," Cincinnati coach Matt Thomas said. "I feel a certain level of stress in terms of I don’t know how I should be feeling. There was a lot of frustration. Really feel like you leave a lot on the table from a development standpoint by not allowing players to experience that intense scenario where it’s best or bust in terms of their ability to show up in big moments."

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