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They couldn't exchange hugs or high-fives due to extensive health and safety protocols -- but there's no question the Winnipeg Jets were happy to be back on the ice together.
Summer training camp kicked off bright and early Monday at Bell MTS Iceplex, with two groups of players working off the rust and being put through the paces under the watchful eye of coach Paul Maurice and his staff.
There were plenty of smiles, socially-distant fist pumps and cheers for the first formal team event since a March 11 victory in Edmonton, which would prove to be the last game of the regular-season as COVID-19 brought sports to a screeching halt. Now, 124 days later, hockey is back after players ratified the return-to-play protocols last Friday, along with a four-year extension of the collective bargaining agreement that provides guaranteed labour peace through the 2025-26 season.
"We love playing hockey, and we want to win the Stanley Cup. We know everybody's doing what they can to be safe," said forward Nikolaj Ehlers in a post-practice Zoom interview, which is one of the many changes brought about by the pandemic along with mandatory daily nasal swabs.
The Jets officially opened camp Monday in preparation for a 24-team tournament that gets underway Aug. 1 in hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto. Fans are not permitted to watch the practices. Winnipeg will skate daily before travelling to Edmonton on July 26 and begin living in the so-called "bubble" before facing off against the Calgary Flames in a best-of-five qualifying series.
The winner advances to the traditional round of 16, playing either Colorado, Dallas, Vegas or St. Louis. The loser has a one-in-eight chance at landing the No 1 overall draft pick and projected franchise player Alexis Lafreniere, based on the results of last month's draft lottery in which a yet-to-be determined placeholder team had the ping pong ball bounce their way.
"I think we're going to have to lean on each other, certainly. Everyone's going to be homesick, everyone's going to miss their families. We're really going to lean on each other to have that face-to-face quality time. There's definitely going to be opportunities for us to spend a ton of time together. I think it's something our group looks forward to, because we do get along really well and have built a pretty strong bond off the ice," said Jets captain Blake Wheeler.
The Jets have brought 33 skaters to camp, including 18 forwards, 12 defencemen and three goaltenders. Teams must trim down to a maximum of 31 players in time for the start of the 24-team Stanley Cup tournament on Aug. 1.
Goaltender Laurent Brossoit, defencemen Anthony Bitetto, Nelson Nogier and Logan Stanley were absent on Monday. Maurice couldn't give any reason for their absences based on NHL protocols to be deliberately vague about any injuries or illnesses going forward.
However, he did confirm veteran centre Bryan Little will not be participating. He suffered an extensive head and ear injury last November after being hit by a Nikolaj Ehlers slapshot, and there was some hope he could be ready by this summer. Maurice said Little underwent further testing last month and doctors deemed he needs more time to recover.
A handful of NHL players have decided to opt-out of the playoffs for personal reasons, but no Jets players went that route.
"It’s an opportunity to win a Stanley Cup. Obviously it’s not the best situation with my family, being away from my wife and my kids, but at the same time I couldn’t risk deciding to stay home and what if the Jets go on and win the Stanley Cup and I miss out on that? So that was the thinking I had, so this is why I’m here. I don’t want to miss out on winning the Cup," said forward Mathieu Perreault.
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