EDMONTON — No more wondering if hockey will come back in the middle of a pandemic, or what it might look like when it does. No more dreaming about what coulda, woulda or shoulda, been. No more speculating about return-to-play protocols, hubs and bubbles and CBA extensions.
The time has finally arrived. Let’s drop the puck and get the most unique Stanley Cup tournament underway, eh?
"It’s an interesting feeling. One exhibition game and right into the playoffs, or the qualifiers. It’s exciting. We haven’t been in this situation before, in July, but it’s exciting and I’m looking forward to getting started," Winnipeg Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey said Friday prior to his team’s practice in Edmonton.
The Jets open their best-of-five qualifying series on Saturday night at Rogers Place against the Calgary Flames, with the winner advancing to the normal round of 16 playoffs. Every team is in the same boat — a four month hockey hiatus due to COVID-19, a two-week summer training camp in their home market, and then a few days of practices and an exhibition game in their hub city.
"I grew up a Flames fan, grew up going to the games, and all my family and friends were Flames fans as well. Definitely I’ll take some ribbing," said Morrissey, a Calgary native. "Unfortunately we weren’t able to be playing in Winnipeg and Calgary, that would have been a cool experience. But this is a cool experience too. At the same time, I hope I can come out on the winning side of it and probably not get bugged as much. I’m sure the people who will be bugging me will be a little quieter then."
Morrissey will be counted on to play a big role in shutting down the likes of Calgary forward Matthew Tkachuk, who will be trying to make his presence felt in the offensive zone. At the other end of the rink, players like Patrik Laine will be looking to fill the Flames net. The 22-year-old Finnish sniper has eight goals and eight assists in 23 career playoff games over the past two years and says he enjoys big challenges such as this.
"I don’t know, I think it’s always been natural to me. Whenever there’s a lot of pressure I feel like that’s when I’m most comfortable. (Saturday) is gonna be one of those big stages where I’ve always had great performances and hopefully I’m gonna have that this year too," said Laine.
The Jets will be the last of five games to be played on opening day, three of them in Toronto and two in Edmonton. After a day off on Sunday, they’ll play an early-afternoon game Monday, and a late afternoon contest on Tuesday. The strange scheduling takes some getting used to, but at least there’s no travel involved.
"It’s a long day for sure but you just try to stay active, try to get some rest, take care of your body and your mind and do whatever you need to do to be ready when the puck drops," Laine said of the 9:30 p.m. CT start for Game 1. "It’s whatever you want to do, that’s up to you. For me, I’ll just try to get some rest, maybe play a couple of video games, for sure, and try to get ready."
Jets coach Paul Maurice joked there’s going to be "lots of coffee in the morning, and lots of waiting in the afternoon."
"You know what, the general mood — and not just the Winnipeg Jets, just talking to all coaches — is there’s an excitement here to be back to work, to be back but everybody’s healthy, right? You’re not carrying 70, 80 games on you so there’s a real enthusiasm for this, for the hockey — and it’s pure hockey, right?" said Maurice.
"So there’s nobody in the stands, we get that. It’s certainly an unusual environment but the puck still drops and everything else is the same after that. The game’s the same. I would say everybody’s enthusiastic that they got training camp just right. It felt a little bit long at the end but everybody needed it. And now the part that we all look forward to is going to happen so I think you’re going to see — I’m here to see — just fantastic hockey."
Laine plans to keep an eye on other games, including some in person. One of the benefits to hub cities is players can walk over to the rink anytime they wish to take in the action, which Laine did during the exhibition contests this week.
"I’ve watched a couple games, that’s actually a pretty nice set-up they have at Rogers Place. The NHL have done a really good job with the rink, so it makes it more fun to play and watch the games instead of just having the empty seats and empty arena," he said.
"They’ve done a really good job over there so it makes it way more fun to watch the games. Having this kind of opportunity, we don’t have much to do here, so just take advantage and maybe watch other teams play, you have buddies all over the league so it’s fun to watch those guys play, too."
Maurice described it as a "World Cup" feel, one in which he’s got to spend a lot more time with his players inside the secure "bubble" environment, while also crossing paths with other coaches and players during the week.
"What it has allowed me to realize is that you need to look at this as a special time and you need to enjoy it. We’ve spent more time together as a coaching staff in the last three or four days than we would have at any time in a normal season. The players for sure. So we’ve got to enjoy this and thrive in it and make the most of it," said Maurice.
"So standing behind the bench the other night was an awful lot of fun. You kind of remembered what that was like. And this has been, I’m going to say, we’ve only been five days here but this whole thing has been a great experience, really enjoyable. You get to spend more time with the people you work with in a different environment. You get to know them differently. The casual conversations, because the players are around so much more, mean something and I’ve enjoyed it very much."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.