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The next phase of the NHL’s return-to-play protocol may have started with a whimper here in Winnipeg, but several other NHL markets hit the ice running on Monday.
Take the Edmonton Oilers, for example. The team sent out a mid-afternoon social media post showing Alex Chiasson, Matt Benning, Kris Russell, Tyler Benson and goaltender Stuart Skinner reacquainting themselves at Rogers Place on the first day the doors were permitted to open.
"Welcome home, fellas," the Tweet read.
The five skaters are one less than the maximum allowed to work out at any given time under current COVID-19 regulations, which include extensive safety protocols and testing of players who volunteer to skate and train at their home facilities.
No doubt the image was a sight for sore eyes for many hockey-starved fans out there. The Columbus Blue Jackets, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning and Vegas Golden Knights were also expected to ramp up Monday, while several other clubs plan to do so later this week.
Not so with the Winnipeg Jets, where Bell MTS Place will remain dark for the foreseeable future. That’s because pretty much all of the players are currently at their off-season homes, and getting back in town is no easy task.
For those scattered elsewhere in Canada, Manitoba currently requires anyone returning to the province to quarantine for 14 days. No such regulations exist for inter-provincial travel in other NHL markets north of the border. As well, all players currently in the United States and Europe must also self-isolate for two weeks upon returning to the Great White North. The NHL is in ongoing dialogue with health and government officials about whether things may change in the coming weeks, or if exceptions could be made.
"That seems to be a real sticking point for a lot of athletes, that 14-day quarantine. There’s really no way around it. It sounds like Winnipeg and Manitoba have been pretty fortunate, so maybe at some point in the near future you’ll see quarantines get removed and you’ll see guys start to migrate back," Jets forward Mark Letestu told the Free Press on Monday.
Letestu is currently in Columbus, Ohio, where he spent the past two NHL seasons with the Blue Jackets prior to signing a one-year deal with the Jets. He’s recently resumed skating and now has an unusual option to consider — going to work out with members of the Blue Jackets at their home facility.
Under this phase of the NHL’s plan, players outside their home markets, residing in another NHL market, are permitted to do so if they choose. Strange times make for strange bedfellows.
"I’d be welcome with the Blue Jackets and there’d be co-ordination with the doctors and testing. In my case you might welcome the testing," said Letestu, who is continuing to work his way back from a heart infection.
"I haven’t had enough symptoms to warrant going for testing, but maybe peace of mind, some guys would prefer that. But some of the freedoms of being able to skate at your own facility and go at your own times, that might be appealing for some guys, too."
That’s what Keegan Kolesar, a member of the Vegas Golden Knights, is doing in his Winnipeg hometown, where he plans to stay for the time being rather than rushing back to Sin City.
If the Jets had opened their facility, Kolesar could have taken advantage. But he’s content to keep skating independently at The Rink, where he trains during the summer, along with a handful of other Manitoba pros. Unlike players who show up at NHL facilities, they are not being tested.
"We have a basic guideline (at The Rink) that the health department has set for us. We have to follow it to a tee, otherwise it will get shut down. We’re following all the steps they’ve told us so we can keep going and still train," said Kolesar.
"There’s a group of us that’s been skating for about three weeks now, working out. It’s working pretty well for us. Winnipeg’s in a pretty good spot. I think Winnipeg has done a very good job and allowed us to get back to a new norm a little bit easier than other places."
The next proposed phase is the start of training camp, likely around mid-July, with the final phase being the 24-team Stanley Cup tournament likely starting around the beginning of August in two hub cities.
"There’s a lot of variables to this. You can ask anyone, they don’t know what’s going to happen. We all hope the season can pick up and we can get back to the norm that we’re used to, but until then just keep in shape, keep our head down and do whatever we can to have this thing subside over time and do our part to stay in shape," said Kolesar.
Letestu said he doesn’t really care where he’s skating right now. Just being on the ice and having a glimmer of hope that hockey can resume is enough.
"It’s starting to feel like we might be able to play this thing," he said.
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.
Updated on Thursday, June 11, 2020 at 9:50 AM CDT: Corrects typo
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