Pittsburgh Penguins winger Zach Aston-Reese declined to get on a soapbox and advocate for the general public to get vaccinated against COVID-19 after his nasty encounter with the virus. He didn’t want to make it political.
But Aston-Reese sure is glad he got vaccinated.
“I don’t want to dive too much into the whole vaccine thing,” he said Monday after practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. “I believe in them. I think maybe if I didn’t have it, I could have easily been in the hospital. Who knows? Who’s to say? But it sucks.”
Aston-Reese made his season debut Saturday in the Penguins’ home-opening 5-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. He had no points, one shot, six hits and a blocked shot in 16:33 of ice time.
That was something of a victory for him after what he went through with the virus.
Aston-Reese and winger Jake Guentzel tested positive for COVID-19 during training camp. Guentzel had no symptoms and missed just one game.
Aston-Reese’s symptoms were considered “mild” in medical terms, but that doesn’t mean the virus didn’t knock him on his keister while he was quarantined.
“It kind of sucked. A lot,” he said. “I felt really good in camp. And then I found out I tested positive the first Sunday in camp, and it’s like as soon as I found out, all the symptoms hit me. I kind of felt like I had the flu for five days. Unfortunately, I had some bad symptoms.
“It’s crazy to me how Jake and I both get it, but Jake was asymptomatic and I was stuck in bed for five days.”
Aston-Reese is still not fully back to feeling normal.
“Getting back has been a process, and it’s something I’m still dealing with a little bit,” he said. “Getting the lungs going has been a little bit tougher. But I’ve been working hard. Hopefully, the next couple weeks I’ll be feeling like myself again.”
Although getting hit with the virus during the preseason was probably preferable to dealing with it in-season, it still was difficult for Aston-Reese to deal with.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” he said. “I worked really hard over the summer and had a lot of confidence coming in to camp.”
He said he felt “sluggish” after the first period Saturday but figured getting back into game shape will come with time, and games.
Aston-Reese is thankful he hasn’t had any serious ancillary issues from the virus. Consider former Penguins player Josh Archibald, now with Edmonton, who is out indefinitely because of post-COVID myocarditis, a heart condition.
“I wasn’t able to work out for 12 days, until I got my heart looked at because there were some players around the league having some heart issues, so they just wanted to make sure I was OK, which I was, thankfully,” Aston-Reese said.
Aston-Reese, 27, has had some injury issues during his career but has been a valuable bottom-six player for the Penguins. He had nine goals, 15 points in 45 games last season, a career high in goals despite the season being shortened by COVID-19.
“We think Zach’s a real good player. I thought he had a real solid playoff for us,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.
“He was on a 15- to 20-goal pace (in a normal season). If he can do that for us, that’s pretty good offensive production for a guy that we rely on defensively. (And) he’s a real good penalty killer.”
Now that Aston-Reese and Guentzel are back, the Penguins are hoping no more players or staff members test positive.
The NHL has a vaccine mandate, and teams are taking various other precautions. But there’s no guarantee there won’t be other breakthrough cases.
“I don’t know that we’ll have 100 percent assurance that we can get ahead of anything in this circumstance,” Sullivan said. “Our concern was we had a few positive cases. We didn’t want it to evolve into anything more than that. So we were trying to be proactive in protecting everybody inside our hockey operations department.
“The fact that we have not had any positive cases over the past 11 days or so I think suggests that we were able to at least avoid a potential outbreak – but I say that reluctantly because who knows where this goes moving forward?
“I just had a meeting with (general manager Ron Hextall) and our leadership group on how to proceed moving forward. We’ll cooperate with the players. We’ll get their feedback as well.”