Edmonton man keeps 'even keel' during Beijing quarantine, 54 days in isolation

Throughout his career, playing minor hockey in 13 countries, Rory Rawlyk has come to expect brushes with disaster. 

Rory Rawlyk was in China as pandemic sent country into lockdown

A woman crosses a main street in the center of Beijing. City streets were virtually empty during the peak of the country's coronavirus crisis. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

Throughout his career playing minor hockey in 13 countries, Rory Rawlyk has come to expect brushes with disaster. 

Rawlyk arrived at a New York Rangers training camp on Sept. 11, 2001, hours before the World Trade Center towers collapsed.

In March 2010, he was with teammates in Herne, Germany, when a volcano in Iceland erupted, spewing a plume of ash across northern Europe, grounding flights and stranding millions of travellers. 

But for Rawlyk, nothing compares to his experience in Beijing, quarantined for weeks as COVID-19 put China under a lockdown.

The Edmonton-born hockey defenceman ended up enduring a total of 54 days of strict isolation in China and Canada. It was a "real tough time" that the 36-year-old handled with a rare kind of level-headedness.

"You couldn't even imagine something like this," Rawlyk said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"But like I said, you were there and you just had to do what you could just to keep going." 

Having recently retired from minor league hockey, Rory Rawlyk was in Beijing, China, in late January when measures were being implemented to curb the spread of the coronavirus. (Rory Rawlyk/Facebook)

Rawlyk, who recently retired from playing, was working in Bejing as a coach helping young players prepare for Olympic contention.

He was at the rink on Jan. 23 when he first realized the coronavirus was becoming a serious threat.

That day, the cities of Wuhan, Xiantao and Chibi had been placed under effective quarantine, with all air and rail departures suspended. Beijing had cancelled events for the Lunar New Year.

Rawlyk, who had little access to English-language news on top of a busy coaching schedule, had no idea of measures that had been implemented. 

"The last day I went there, it was just deserted at the rink," he recalled. "No one told me it was shut down.

"That was the last time anything normal happened." 

I was boiling water and showering out of a bag​​​​​.- Rory Rawlyk

Within days, the entire country would be on lockdown and Rawlyk would be confined to his apartment. 

"It was an eerie feeling," he said.  "Once you started hearing about borders being shut down and maybe getting stuck in the country and stuff like that, that's when I think things got a little more elevated."

Coronavirus brings eerie emptiness to Beijing

4 years ago
Duration 2:11
CBC’s Sasa Petricic looks at how the coronavirus outbreak has brought an eerie emptiness to the normally jam-packed streets of Beijing and how people are responding.

Strict public health protocols meant to curb the spread of the virus controlled every aspect of daily life. 

Registration papers were required to walk the streets. Mandatory temperature-check stations were erected outside grocery stores and apartment buildings.

"There were some days where you didn't have the internet and you're just kind of sitting in your apartment, staring out the window and just waiting, hoping things got back to normal." 

"I mean, the day-to-day life was a whole other level of extreme caution and things you had to do." 

Soon, with the country's economy at a standstill, Rawlyk's paycheques from the rink stopped coming. When the electricity and water was cut off to his apartment, he heated water in a kettle and MacGyver-ed a makeshift shower.

"I was boiling water and showering out of a bag in my bathroom," he said.  "It was kind of crazy.

"I was doing a lot of stuff that probably would have driven people crazy. But like I said, I tried to keep mentally strong." 

After weeks in strict quarantine in China, followed by another 14 days in isolation back home in Edmonton, he has some advice for people just beginning to hunker down.

Keep an "even keel," respect the advice of health officials — and be thankful for what you have. 

"You see the impact it's having on the world and the economy and you know everyone's been affected by this," he said. 

"It's definitely serious and you kind of just pray and hope that everything gets sorted out here quickly." 

With files from Mark Connolly