In a typical NHL offseason, there’s a two-month window that players and their partners view as the life-event safe zone. No games or training camps or league obligations on the schedule. The perfect time to plan a vacation or a wedding or, in the case of Jordie Benn and his fiancée, Jessica Kohout, the birth of their first child.
“We definitely thought we nailed the timing. You obviously want to be around for the birth of your kid. You want to be able to hang out for at least a couple of weeks or a month when they’re brand new like that,” said Benn, a defenseman for the Vancouver Canucks.
“We thought we planned it perfectly. And then this whole pandemic started.”
The NHL paused its season on March 12 because of the coronavirus outbreak, but its “return to play” plans are progressing. Training camps could open on July 10. Around three weeks later, a 24-team postseason tournament is expected to begin and could end in October.
Kohout’s due date is July 24. The planning is no longer perfect. But even if the Canucks are in the midst of their training camp, Benn will be in Dallas (the couple’s offseason home city) for the delivery.
“There’s no way I’m going to miss the birth of my first child,” he said. “Everybody can have their own outlook on the birth of a child, but I’m a very family-oriented person. I wouldn’t let Jess be in that hospital, having my child, without me there. I don’t think that’s fair. I’ll find a way to get around this.”
There are several NHL players with pregnant partners whose due dates were set for an offseason that’s now the expected restart of their season. It’s a list that includes players such as Benn, his Vancouver teammate Bo Horvat, Colorado Avalanche defenseman Kevin Connauton and Washington Capitals forward Lars Eller.
“I’ve been thinking about that pretty much every day since there could be a possibility of a return to play. It’s definitely not easy. But I’m not the only one in this kind of situation,” said Horvat, whose wife, Holly, has a due date of July 19. “We haven’t made any decision or talked to anybody about that yet. We’re seeing how this thing plays out. Hopefully I’m going to be there for the birth of my first child.”
Connauton’s wife, Brooke, is scheduled to give birth before training camp starts, on June 30.
“We hadn’t really planned specifically to try and have a baby in the summer. It just kind of happened. Back in October when we found out, we were pretty excited that it was going to be during the offseason and I was going to be around full time,” Kevin Connauton said. “Obviously, that’s changed now. It probably couldn’t be a worse time, if you look at the schedule. But that’s just the way things go. You have to keep things in perspective. We’re still pretty fortunate, and we can’t wait for the baby to get here.”
Benn and Kohout have discussed the unknowns about his situation for months. “It’s been a conversation every day. Have you heard updates? Do you know where you’re going to be? Are you going back to Vancouver? Is Vancouver going to have camp in the United States? I try and text people and get answers, but nobody knows anything,” Benn said. “There are so many unknowns. It’s frustrating, but it’s frustrating for everyone. You don’t have a date when you’re going to start. The whole 14-day quarantine thing [in Canada]. As of right now, camp is supposed to start July 10. I don’t know if there are going to be loopholes around the quarantine by then.”
Benn’s situation is complicated by the current rules on travel being enforced by the Canadian government. Benn resides in Dallas. If he travels across the border to Vancouver, it is mandated that he quarantine for 14 days. There’s talk the government will massage those rules for NHL personnel. There’s also talk that the Canucks might seek to hold their training camp in the U.S. to get around those rules if they’re not eased. At this point for Benn, it’s all a frustrating mystery.
“If it was the regular season or if we were already in the playoffs, and there was no quarantine period and we just fly in, see the birth and fly back, there’s no issues there,” he said. “But with this whole pandemic going on, if I leave [for Canada], do I have to quarantine for 14 days? And then I leave for Dallas, come back, and quarantine for another 14 days?”
Benn has started to investigate loopholes, like the possibility that “if you drive through the border, then you don’t have to quarantine.” He and Kohout also have talked about having a doctor induce her on a day when Benn can potentially return from training camp.
“We’ve talked to the doctors — obviously, making sure that baby is fully cooked, for lack of better word — about picking an inducement date,” Benn said. “If we’re skating for a few days and then we get a Sunday off, I would tell the doctor here that we’re doing it on a Sunday so I could head out Saturday and get here, and then just deal with the border when it comes.”
Kohout declined to be interviewed, as did Brooke Connauton.
After their children are born, more logistical nightmares will await NHL players and their partners this summer.
The NHL is planning to restart its season in two “hub” cities, where players will be cordoned off from the public and quarantined during a postseason tournament that will complete the 2019-20 season. Officials such as Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer for British Columbia, have indicated that players would not have interactions with family members once inside the hub. Players’ access to their families is a chief point of negotiation between the NHL and the NHLPA, as the players have yet to approve an actual return to the ice this summer.
What happens when they begin life in the hub city bubble, potentially unable to spend time bonding with their newborns and helping out their partners?
“Am I happy about it? Definitely not,” said Benn, who added that the hub city restrictions weren’t necessarily “a deal-breaker.”
“I know a lot of guys have kids around the league and they’re already saying, ‘There’s no way I’m not going to see my family for two months.’ That’s something the NHL and the NHLPA are going to have to negotiate. Look, you can’t tell a dad that he can’t see his family for two months. There’s just no way that’s possible.”
Connauton admitted that he hasn’t quite envisioned what life inside the bubble — and away from family — could be like.
“I think I will once the baby gets here. If we’re holding her and stuff. It’s going to be a lot harder thinking about leaving for that long. But it applies to everyone,” he said. “There are guys in the league that have three or four kids, some of them young kids. Everyone has their own situation, and it’s going to be tough to leave. A lot of pressure on your wife to manage it all. There’s definitely a lot of guys that are thinking about that kind of stuff.”
Both Benn and Connauton were hoping that Dallas would be named one of the hub cities. Connauton said it would give him “that piece of mind where you’re there if something happens. That you don’t have to jump on a flight.” Benn said he would be ecstatic were that to happen, but he cautioned that he’d find a way to burst the NHL’s bubble.
“There’s no way you’re going to keep me in a hotel when I have a baby 15 minutes from me,” he said. “I’ll put on a mask. I’ll test when I get back to the hotel. I’ll do whatever you need me to do. But I’m telling you right now, I’m going to see my child. If this means my fianceé and my child have to stay with me in the hotel, that’s fine too.”
The shift of the season has had some benefits for NHL players with expectant partners. “We figured it would be ‘get home, have the baby right away.’ The silver lining of it all is that we’ve had time to get some things arranged and set up that we wouldn’t have if things had gone on normally,” Connauton said.
Benn said that he and Kohout have been careful during the past few months of the pandemic.
“The pregnancy’s been going great. We’re just doing what everyone else has done. Staying away from restaurants. We’re limiting who we hang out with and who we’re around,” Benn said. “We’ve respectfully told everybody that we hang out with that we’ve got a little more at risk here. We’re not going to tell them not to hang out with people, but if they do, we might just stay away for a couple weeks or a few days and just see how they’re feeling. Everything just gets a little bit more heightened when she’s pregnant.”
The word “heightened” could also describe the emotional debate about life in the hubs for players. Complicating things for the NHLPA are all the competing desires of its players — some young, some old, some with families, some without. There will be players wholeheartedly ready to return to empty arenas in designated cities to finish out the season. There will be players who’d rather not enter a bubble that could separate them from family.
“You have 700-plus members that are all at different points in their lives,” Connauton said. “We all play hockey for a living, but everyone has complete different situations going on at home. Some guys are in their early 20s and probably just bored out of their minds. Other guys are raising families or are just having kids. Guys have had to cancel weddings this summer. It’s such a mixed bag of opinions. At the end of the day, the votes get tallied, the decision is made, and you just have to live with what the majority said and make the most of it. There’s no situation that’s going to be a perfect scenario.”
And there’s apparently no such thing as perfect timing, either.
“We thought we planned it perfectly,” Benn said. “It’s pretty crazy that our timing didn’t work out.”