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Walking out of Rogers Place in the wee hours of March 12, I had no idea when the Winnipeg Jets might skate again — or what it might look like when they did. After all, the world was changing due to COVID-19, and a big win over the Edmonton Oilers earlier that night was quickly rendered meaningless in the grand scheme of things.
Now, 124 days later, we finally have some answers, along with a whole host of new questions. What went down Monday morning inside Bell MTS Iceplex, as the most unique training camp in club history got underway, was like nothing anyone associated with the sport has ever experienced before.
There were mandatory nasal swabs up the noses of all Jets players, along with health questionnaires and digital temperature checks for those of us entering the facility. Masks were required at all times. The rink lobby, normally a hub of activity whenever the hometown team hits the ice, was a ghost town and closed to the public. Handshakes among colleagues I haven't seen for four months were replaced by distant waves and muffled, socially distant pleasantries, just as hugs and high-fives among players were a no-no.
A workspace was created in the Press Box Restaurant, with tables spaced out against against glass that fogged up every few minutes. It didn't take long to remember why hockey and hot summer weather don't typically work well together. Forget the wind chill, does anyone know the humidex?
Alas, a blurry view from high above the rink surface — that was temporarily cleared by a staff member with a squeegee — was as close as we'd get to the players, who did their usual post-practice media scrums by computer from a backdrop set up inside their heavily sanitized lockerroom.
And then there was the gobbledygook uttered by head coach Paul Maurice about why four players on his roster — goalie Laurent Brossoit and defencemen Anthony Bitetto, Logan Stanley and Nelson Nogier — were mysteriously absent for the first day of on-ice workouts. Turns out they were "unfit to practise," which is the latest buzz phrase you're going to be hearing an awful lot of in the coming weeks.
That literally could mean anything, from a groin strain to a hangnail to a positive test for the coronavirus, but the league doesn't want you or me to know. Hey, turns out I have something in common with the missing four, as I, too, am unfit for an NHL practice.
"I wouldn’t read anything into whether a player was on the ice or not necessarily as a COVID situation. There won’t be any injury or health updates as we move forward," said Maurice, who joked that he needed to consult "legal counsel and plead the fifth" while repeating a new NHL edict that was part of last week's return-to-play protocols between the league and players.
Welcome to pro sports in the middle of a global pandemic, where the next couple weeks are going to be critical in determining whether the Stanley Cup playoffs can begin on Aug. 1 as scheduled.
Get all 24 teams to the hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto and inside the protective "bubbles" by July 26 without incident and you have a fighting chance, but an outbreak or two among players or staff in their home markets between now and then could quickly spell disaster.
To that end, you have to think NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and company were holding their breath when they heard the Pittsburgh Penguins held nine players out of Monday's skate due to what they're calling potential secondary exposure to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.
A few hours later came the news that 43 NHL players have tested positive since the beginning of June, when they were allowed to start voluntary skates at their home facilities. The most prolific was Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews, who confirmed his diagnosis to reporters on Monday. He's one of the few to publicly out themselves, with the rest citing privacy. That's the way it's going to be for the foreseeable future, with only general league-wide data being released.
"Not easy," is how the always candid forward Mathieu Perreault described his decision to bid his wife and young children goodbye in Quebec earlier this month, potentially until late September if the Jets can go on a deep run.
There have been at least a half-dozen NHL players who opted out of returning to play, citing personal reasons. None of them come from the Jets, who seemed genuinely excited to be back. That included Perreault, who didn't mind getting up in time for a 7:45 a.m. skate for his first group Monday morning, the earliest practice he recalls since playing peewee.
"Just had a coffee and once you get on the ice you’re good to go. Also we get this nose swipe every morning, so that’ll get you going pretty quick. It’s not very comfortable to do, so it gets your brain going," he told me.
Many are wondering whether all this hassle and risk is worth it in the name of a game, something several players, Maurice and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff were all asked.
"It's a good idea because I'm a hockey fan and I'm going nuts. It's in the middle of July and we get to see playoffs. I want to see it. I think it's a good idea because we have a responsibility also first to our health, I get that. But also we're entertainers, right? So this is prime time. People want to watch hockey. They want to see it. That's our job and we have a responsibility to do our job," said Maurice.
There's no doubt money is the major motivator, with the league and its players trying to stave off projected losses of more than US$1 billion if the playoffs can't be held in some form. That would mean a drastically reduced future salary cap and plenty of future contract chaos.
But there's also the pursuit of Lord Stanley, something many brought up as the driving force. The Jets figure they've got as good a shot as anyone at the silver chalice.
"Everybody knows that they need to be cautious and that it's going to be different," said Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers. "With that said, it's not that this didn't scare me, but we love playing hockey. We want to win the Stanley Cup and we know that everybody's doing what they can to be safe. I'm excited to start."
They're finally out of the gate and off to the races now. Whether they can finish remains to be seen.
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