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Hockey

Ex-Kings assistant Dusty Imoo recalls sudden alarm, rush to leave China as coronavirus broke out

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Dusty Imoo
(Twitter / @Dusty70)

Dusty Imoo was on the other side of the world when he realized just how serious the coronavirus outbreak had become.

The former Kings goalie development coach, who took a job this season with a team in Beijing, can pinpoint the exact moment: late during the night of Jan. 22, riding through the darkened streets of the Chinese capital in the backseat of an oversized van.

“A couple phone calls happened to Curt Fraser, the head coach, and he’s talking to the GM,” said Imoo, whose HC Kunlun Red Star team this season was the only Chinese club in the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League.

“That night, it was decided: The team is leaving. And not coming back.”

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Before then, Imoo only had a vague awareness of the mysterious virus discovered weeks earlier in Wuhan, China. He was wrapped up in the stretch run of the KHL season and living in a country where most information passes through government censors first. He knew whatever was happening was no good but figured there was no good in worrying about it either.

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“It was not a big deal over there,” Imoo said. “It was barely talked about. Like, ‘Yeah, a few people are getting sick with a virus,’ but that was it.”

Then, over the course of one night, everything changed.

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“It escalated,” Imoo said. “Really fast.”

From the back of the van, Imoo and the team’s fellow coaches tried to piece together a de facto evacuation plan. They were already scheduled to leave on a European trip the next day to play games in Helsinki, Finland, Moscow, and Chelyabinsk, Russia, before returning to Beijing.

Only, there would be no return now. The ever-spreading virus — a flu-like illness that, as of Thursday morning, had been contracted by nearly 100,000 people worldwide and caused more than 3,300 deaths — had become too great a risk for the team to stay in China.

Instead, it was decided they would play out the remainder of their season on the road, nomadically moving from one European city to the next. Players and staff were told they could bring their families but were given only hours to pack for what would become a month spent abroad.

Imoo, who was living at a Renaissance hotel in Beijing, filled one suitcase with clothes but left three others behind. He was screened by doctors the next day, boarded the cross-continental flight, and hasn’t returned to China since.

Sporting events around the world have either been canceled, postponed, or played without spectators because of the coronavirus outbreak.

“That was the tough thing,” he said. “The road trip just kept moving. We never got to stay in one spot very long. Moscow was the longest we stayed, and we bounced back there a few times.”

This week, as an increasing number of coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the U.S. — including more than 30 in California — North American sports leagues have started laying out contingency plans for the possible postponement or cancellation of games. Los Angeles County’s health director has discussed the possibility of playing games in empty venues with several local teams.

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The goal is to avoid the type of crazed confusion that has derailed Imoo’s team, which won only one of its nine games after leaving Beijing and missed the KHL playoffs.

“The writing was on the wall with the boys,” Imoo said. “You could just see it. They were mentally shot. It was tough for them.”

Imoo returned to his native Vancouver this week, relieved to be back home but unsure of his future. Up until the end, he enjoyed the job in China, relishing his role as the primary goalie coach for a pro club and bonding with his two goalies. The KHL lifestyle, with its intense inter-continental travel schedule and combination of global cultures, was unlike anything he was used to. But, for the most part, life was good — until the coronavirus outbreak.

“It was weird,” Imoo said. “It went from nothing to 100 really fast.”

Part of the problem, Imoo thinks, was the lack of information available in China, where the early extent of the virus was partially concealed by authorities, who went so far as to arrest the doctor who warned of the upcoming outbreak; he later died of the virus.

“The thing that’s kind of scary is, it’s no secret that they held back on it,” Imoo said. “Who knows how long it’s been going on. It could have been in Beijing too. We were fortunate that everybody was OK.”

Imoo, who during his Kings tenure played a key role in helping Jack Campbell and Peter Budaj rediscover their game, doesn’t know what will come next. He has a year left on his contact with Red Star but has heard rumors the team might be relocated out of China. If the right opportunity arises, he would consider a job in North America.

But first, he has a short-term concern to address. His three suitcases full of clothing are still in Beijing. As long as the coronavirus poses a threat, he has no idea when he’ll get them back.


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