- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Goalie Pheonix Copley and defenseman Beck Malenstyn saw their hockey seasons come to an abrupt end this week — or did they?

The American Hockey League called off the remainder of its 2019-20 season on Monday due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, so the Hershey Bears won’t take the ice together until the fall when sports might be back (at the earliest).

But the NHL is angling to restart its season when it finds a safe enough time and format to do so, and with the Stanley Cup Playoffs comes the custom of teams calling up minor-leaguers as “black aces,” extra players used as practice bodies and emergency safety nets.

That’s the state of limbo where Copley, Malenstyn and many other AHL players now find themselves. Even though they know the fate of their AHL season, a different kind of hockey assignment could pop up down the road.

The Capitals have told Copley and Malenstyn that they’ll be called up as “black aces” in the event that the NHL season is able to conclude, the players said on a conference call Wednesday.

“There hasn’t been any timeline reiterated to us,” Malenstyn said. “We know that if there is a season that kicks back in, that we’ll have to be there. So it’s really just staying ready for when that time comes and being prepared to figure out (how) to get there however we can.”

Copley, an Alaska native, stayed in Pennsylvania when the pandemic caused the AHL season to postpone, while Canadian Malenstyn hunkered down in his native British Columbia. Assuming that the NHL can hold a postseason later this summer, they’ll be asked to get back to Washington, possibly at a moment’s notice.

“Everyone would be in the same boat if that happens, so it would be kind of an even playing field in that regard,” Copley said. “Yeah, you would just take the preparation that you’ve been doing and do what you can with that.”

Copley was the Capitals’ No. 2 goalie in 2018-19 and a black ace in the run to the Stanley Cup the year before that. He signed a three-year contract extension in 2019, but with the rise of top prospect Ilya Samsonov this year, Copley spent his season in Hershey.

Malenstyn, meanwhile, made his NHL debut in November with a three-game call-up while a handful of Capitals players were injured. He said Wednesday the call-up was one of the biggest moments of his season, “something I’ve been working really hard toward my entire career.”

Joining them on the conference call was forward Matt Moulson, an NHL veteran and first-time Bear who played this season on a one-year contract. The contract was an AHL contract rather than a two-way deal, meaning the Capitals can’t call the 36-year-old up at any time.

To Moulson, the sudden end to the 2019-20 season and the lack of closure meant he was not going to consider retirement — particularly given that the Bears had one of the Eastern Conference’s best records and could have contended for a Calder Cup, the AHL’s championship trophy.

“When the season ended, I looked at my wife and I said, ‘I can’t go out like this,’” Moulson said. “We talked about, earlier on, the ‘what if’ questions. I think I’d definitely live that one up if I ended my career on a coronavirus cancellation.”

The players said if it were up to them, they’d return to the ice as soon as they were given a green light. There was one other important factor, however: safety precautions for their family members.

“I think if we could isolate ourselves as individuals to get back to playing, we would, just to keep our families safe,” Malenstyn said. “I don’t think there’d be a lot to hold us back.”

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