SARTELL, Minn. — It was a bit chaotic at first, but then Ben Hanowski and his family just wanted to get back home to Minnesota.
On March 14, Hanowski, his wife, Melissa, and their 2-year-old daughter, Lillian, flew back to the United States. Hanowski's fifth regular season playing pro hockey in Germany had ended on March 8. On March 10, the league cancelled its postseason because of the coronavirus pandemic.
On March 13, some confusion about the travel ban into the United States got cleared up and, the next day, the former St. Cloud State captain and his family got on a plane in Düsseldorf to fly to Atlanta. They then flew from Atlanta to Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport.
"Once the announcement came out that there was a travel ban going into effect, the Americans (players) were trying to get out as fast as possible," said Hanowski, who grew up in Little Falls, Minn. "The biggest stressor for us was what airlines from what airports would still be going and what would be the process of getting into the U.S. with the screening and trying to make connecting flights. That was the biggest stressor and trying to get packed up as fast as possible.
"We wanted to get out as reasonably fast as possible just because of how fast things were changing, day to day, even. With different regulations coming out, we wanted to get out of Germany and home as soon as possible — just to get home. There would have been nothing wrong with us staying in Cologne, Germany, and quarantine there. But there's just a little safer feeling when you're in your own home."
In the Düsseldorf airport, Hanowski said that the effects that the pandemic was having on travel hit him.
"When we got to the airport to leave Germany, that's when you knew things were escalating because it was very quiet," he said. "There were just 40 Americans who were allowed to come back on an international flight on a plane that typically has 300, 350 people on it."
Back in the USA
Hanowski said that when their plane landed in Atlanta, officials came onto the plane and handed out questionnaires that the passengers needed to fill out before they departed the plane. Passengers were asked to write down their names, where they were coming from, where they had been and where they lived.
"After we had filled everything out, they checked everything over and, from the sounds of the way they were speaking to us, they were more concerned if people were coming from China than Europe at the time," he said. "We were given a brief screening and then they gave us some more questions once we got to customs. They were asking us if we had left Europe at all while we were in Germany? We hadn't, so we were allowed to leave fairly quickly."
Hanowski said that they were not given any swab tests to see if they had COVID-19. Then they got on the plane to Minneapolis.
Once they got to Minneapolis, Hanowski's father, John, picked them up and was able to get their three large suitcases and three hockey bags into his truck bed and drove them to their home in Sartell, Minn.
Family members had prepared the house for the Hanowskis, including putting some food in their fridge and making sure that the water and electricity were up and running. Hanowski then quarantined his family to the house for the next two weeks and his brother, Beau, and others left needed items outside their door.
Crowded US airports
Ben and Melissa have begun leaving the house recently for short trips, like most people in the state are doing, and none of them nor his father, John, have had any symptoms of COVID-19.
"When we flew from Düsseldorf to Atlanta, we just kind of thought that Atlanta (airport) would be a ghost town, too," he said. "When we landed in Atlanta, we must have been the only international flight at that time. There was hardly anybody there but our flight and the workers.
"Once we got to the domestic side (of the airport), it was very surprising. There were a ton of people going about everything that it was almost like a normal day. That was when I thought, maybe Europe is a bit further ahead than the U.S. (in social distancing) when you compared how people were when we left Germany that morning, compared to how the people were in Atlanta and Minneapolis.
"We were worried about traveling internationally and that, hopefully, we wouldn't pass anything along to other people. But if anything, we had way more human interaction with close contact in Atlanta and Minneapolis than we did anywhere in Germany because of the amount of people at those airports when we got back."
And now, like everyone, Hanowski is at home, waiting for movement restrictions to ease. He has nowhere to skate, but has been working out at home and running to try to prepare for next season.
The 2019-20 season was not one that he sounds like he wants to think about a lot, though he was healthy throughout, unlike the 2018-19 season when he was limited to 31 games because of injuries. In 2019-20, he had 12 goals, 25 points and 20 penalty minutes, playing in all 52 of his team's games.
"It was good to stay healthy, but we just had a tough year as a team," said Hanowski, whose team finished 11th out of 14 teams and did not qualify for the playoffs. "We couldn't find a way to piece things together.
"It was one of the tougher (seasons) from a team aspect," he said of his fifth season playing in Germany. "We couldn't find a lot of answers and figure out a solution to make the team better and win some more games. I didn't feel physically limited, but individually, I would say I had a poor year as well. We didn't score a lot of goals and we gave up a lot of goals, so there weren't a lot of bright spots. It was kind of an up-and-down season for me."
Hanowski was in the last season of his contract in 2019-20, but wants to return to play in Germany again next season.