The Maple Leafs’ Mitch Marner and Jason Spezza took the long road back to play

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Mitch Marner and Jason Spezza are quirks at the Maple Leafs these days, two players who missed significant playing time before ‘omicron’ entered the team lexicon.

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Before the COVID-19 variant closed large parts of the world and the NHL, the two strikers were already put on the sidelines, Marner due to a shoulder injury, Spezza during a tough six-game league suspension.

But with part of Toronto’s list still fighting back from the protocol, Marner is now ready when Toronto returns from 17 days away on Saturday to face Ottawa. Spezza, his verdict reduced two fights with an appeal, was caught by the COVID wave, but it did not matter when the last six fights were canceled. He was back for training on Monday, a day after Marner and the first party Leafs came out of the long holiday break.

Spezza was to be part of a special charter flight home from Vancouver with more than 10 players and staff testing positive on the Western road trip, cutting it close to being home again, then quarantining and being with family in time for Christmas.

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“It was definitely a couple of whirlwind weeks with things you never predict will happen,” Spezza said. “I was very lucky to get home. My tests were about to be (clear) on the 25th, and luckily I was able to see my (four daughters) on Christmas morning.”

While out west, Spezza went from excitement to getting a break from Commissioner Gary Bettman in the morning to becoming part of the club’s omicron outburst that afternoon.

“I was pretty down. I had come on a road trip and was really hoping to get the suspension reduced and trying to get fresh and ready to go. Getting it taken away by COVID was a series of emotions. It turned out that the fights were canceled , and I did not miss a thing. “

Spezza, who had an exemplary record through more than 1,200 NHL games, called the decision “just” when Bettman heard his appeal. Spezza had taken a run at the Winnipeg Jets’ Neal Pionk, who in turn had injured teammate Rasmus Sandin with a knee and was also docked a few games.

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“I got to speak in front of Mr. Bettman, (league vice-president) Bill Daly, George Parros (director of player safety) and talk the piece through. George has a hard job. I disagreed with the length of the suspension, and that’s why , the rules are in place.I thought it was important that I use the process that we as players are allowed to exercise my right.

“I’m not going to discuss in public how I thought (the case should have gone) and how they thought.”

While Marner did not need surgery, the club had to move him to the Long Term Injured Reserve due to a salary cap. It would have required him to sit out for at least 10 games or 24 days, but then COVID became a factor. Leafs and teams with players in similar situations lobbied for canceled matches to count against LTIR. Marner last played on December 1st.

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“At one point, I thought it was a bruise,” Marner said. “Then I went on a road trip (Minnesota-Winnipeg), did some things, got into the locker room, and it did not feel right. I waited it out and saw the full results (an MRI when the Leafs came home). We just had to build. it up again and get better. ”

The Leafs are wondering when in mid-February the six games they have lost to COVID – the most recent being Wednesday at home against Pittsburgh – will be rescheduled. They play 14 times from January 1 to February 1, after which they were to rest for an all-star weekend in Vegas, followed by the Olympic break that starts on February 6. Now there are 18 days to what should be their first match left after Beijing, to regain lost games.

“There’s a lot unknown about the second half of the season,” Spezza said. “I’m sure there will (still) be a kind of goodbye week, but I hope they fill it with games and, if necessary, extend (the regular season) a week or so so as not to stuff things “It’s too important for the safety of the players.”

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Spezza, Alex Kerfoot and Wayne Simmonds approved the protocol after conducting heart tests Monday morning. That brought the number of strikers up to 14, though William Nylander is a remarkable absence and the Leafs remain thin in goal and in defense.

Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek stay out of the fold, while Joseph Woll and Marlie Ian Scott handle most of the training. Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, TJ Brodie and Sandin are still absent, leaving Justin Holl. Timothy Liljegren, Carl Dahlstrom, Alex Biega and Filip Kral so far, some of them on the newly created taxi team. The NHL gave Toronto a one-day permit to use AHL Marlie Matt Hellickson so it could have six defenders for training.

Absent for another day of training were coach Sheldon Keefe and assistant Spencer Carbery as they continue the protocol. Assistant Dean Chynoweth is running exercises on the ice, but Keefe may be back Tuesday. Ottawa’s counterpart DJ Smith is in the same boat as he tries to get his team ready for Saturday, without being approved to join his players another day. The Senators, who have been on hiatus since Dec. 18, also got scrubbed their Wednesday game against Boston.

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lhornby@postmedia.com

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