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Here’s a sentence you would never expect to hear in July: the Winnipeg Jets kicked off their training camp at Bell MTS Iceplex on Monday.
Players have returned to town from all over the globe as they have three weeks to knock off some rust and prepare for a best-of-five qualifying series against the Calgary Flames to advance to the round of 16 in the NHL playoffs. Game 1 is scheduled for Aug. 1 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, with no fans in attendance.
There are 33 players invited to camp, but goalie Laurent Brossoit and defencemen Anthony Bitetto, Nelson Nogier and Logan Stanley were not in action on Day 1. Veteran forward Bryan Little won’t be participating at all as he saw doctors in June and it was determined he isn’t ready to return this season from a head injury.
The players that were at the Iceplex on Monday were split into two groups, with the first half stepping onto the ice at 7:45 a.m. Although there are potential risks of returning to play and living in a bubble, no one chose to sit out — the entire team is all in.
"It’s an opportunity to win a Stanley Cup," said Jets forward Mathieu Perreault, the first player to hop on a Zoom call with media as he skated with the early group.
"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."
Nikolaj Ehlers flew into Winnipeg from Denmark and had to finish up a quarantine before he could lace up his skates. Despite the fact the mandatory 14-day quarantine required for those returning from outside Canada has been waived for NHL players, they were still required to have a shorter stay in isolation, as long as they tested negative. The Jets haven’t provided specific details on what the quarantine rules were for players, but Ehlers said he had some gym equipment in his apartment as a way to stay somewhat active while locked down. Ehlers was asked if he had any anxiety travelling back for work in the middle of a pandemic.
"Especially flying from Europe, you’re going through a lot of airports and sitting on planes with a lot of people. But, you know, I had sanitizer by me at all times, I had a mask on throughout the whole 16-hour trip. I wanted to come back and play. Obviously you don’t want to get it (coronavirus), but I think I did as well as I could to keep myself safe and everybody else safe," Ehlers said.
Ehlers added players are taking the virus seriously and following the necessary protocols in order to play. So far, he doesn’t feel it’s been a major adjustment.
"Besides everybody being cautious and wearing a mask, it’s not that different," Ehlers said.
"We’re not hugging each other or giving high fives and stuff like we usually do. But other than that we’re in our locker room, not sitting too close to each other but still talking, and making the most of this situation. But everybody is still being cautious and everybody is back for a reason. We love playing hockey and we’re back playing it."
While it was obvious the players enjoyed being back at the rink working with the coaching staff again, captain Blake Wheeler said preparing for a playoff series isn’t the only thing on everyone’s mind.
"The mood, we’re obviously excited to see each other, obviously excited to be back on the ice. But it’s not quite life as usual. It’s not business as usual. There’s still a lot of hurt going on, and I’m American, so there’s still a lot of things going on in life, outside of this arena," Wheeler said.
"But for the couple hours that we’re at the facility, we get to be around each other, and it’s definitely a welcome distraction and an opportunity for us to hopefully provide some relief and some entertainment for people who’ve been craving it for a long time."
Living in a bubble is also far from business as usual, but Wheeler admitted he hasn’t spent a ton of time thinking about what it will be like. The toughest part will be leaving behind his wife, Sam, to take care of three young kids by herself. Wheeler said his wife told him since he’s leaving, he might as well make it worthwhile and go on a big playoff run to give her and Jets fans something to cheer for.
"I know it’s going to be challenging to kind of be isolated in a hotel for what could be a prolonged period of time. So I think the mental side of things, that’s where we’re going to have to lean on each other as a team, to alleviate some of that. That’s going to be really important for everyone," Wheeler said.
"Obviously every team’s going to have to go through that. But for our team to try to keep lifting each other up if guys are having bad days, whoever handles it the best is going to give themselves the best chance to be successful on the ice. You just can’t let it be an excuse. Can’t let it be anything else than the cards we’re dealt. We’ve just gotta make the best of it."
The Jets will travel to Edmonton on July 26 and will have one tune-up game before they square off against the Flames. It will feel nothing like playoff hockey as there won’t be 15,000-plus screaming fans packed into an arena dressed head to toe in white. It remains to be seen if it will look like playoff hockey on the ice as it will be 143 days between meaningful games for the Jets. Nobody knows what to expect, but the Winnipeg club has already faced a lot of adversity this season. They’re hoping all the things they’ve had to overcome thus far — training camp contract disputes, the Dustin Byfuglien situation, the never-ending list of injuries — will help them in their toughest challenge yet.
"This is kind of a unique situation. It’s uncharted territory," Wheeler said. "I don’t think anyone really knows what to expect or how anyone individually or as a team is going to handle it once things get rolling in August. It could be any team catching fire and going on a run. You just hope that you’re that team."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.
Updated on Monday, July 13, 2020 at 10:55 PM CDT: adds photo
12:05 AM: Adds photo
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