TORONTO — There were temperature checks, uncomfortable nasal swab tests, masks when appropriate, and plenty of physical distancing off the ice.
The next step in the NHL’s plan to restart a season knocked off kilter by COVID-19 got going with something that would have been unfathomable four months ago — training camps in mid-July.
And the players couldn’t have been happier.
“Phenomenal just to be back competing,” Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares said. “It’s been a long journey just to get to this point.”
There were moments, however, when Monday didn’t seem all that likely.
“Everybody had that in the back of their mind with so much going on in the world,” Toronto centre Auston Matthews added. “These last couple months, just try to stay as optimistic as possible. And I think that’s everybody’s mindset going into this.
“Hopefully everything works out and we’re able to play.”
The NHL, like most other leagues, suspended its schedule March 12 amid the widening pandemic that has drastically impacted life — the human and economic cost is sometimes hard to fathom — throughout North America and across the globe.
But plans for an eventual resumption of play, if it was safe to do so, started to come together as spring wore on.
A 24-team format was agreed upon in the event the games could actually resume. Then came the negotiations between the league and the NHL Players’ Association on the final details on the return-to-play protocol, as well as the four-year extension of the collective bargaining agreement through September 2026 that will hopefully lessen the pandemic’s economic wallop.
The NHL is aiming to have teams in the hub cities of Toronto and Edmonton on July 26, with the games starting to count on Aug. 1.
The players know there’s a chance the novel coronavirus could push things completely off the rails before they get inside the so-called “bubbles” meant to keep the virus at bay, but it was nice to focus on hockey for the first time in 123 days.
“It’s good to be back on the ice and do what we love,” Montreal Canadiens captain Shea Weber said. “We now share a goal of getting ready in the next couple of weeks.”
Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid said he continued to hold out hope this day would arrive.
“There are lots of unknowns, but I stayed ready,” he said. “I always thought that something would get done and we’d end up playing.
“Today’s a big step towards that.”
Matthews, who confirmed a report by The Toronto Sun he tested positive for COVID-19 last month at home in Arizona, said there are going to plenty of challenges trying to ramp up for a summer like no other.
“Every team’s going through the same thing,” said Matthews, who added he was mostly asymptomatic. “Not as much time for certain guys, like myself … a couple weeks of not really being able to do much. Kind of out of the norm of a typical training camp where you’re going in there feeling good. It’s gonna be a little bit different, but everybody’s going through similar stuff.
“We’re going to adjust as we go and just try and be in as good a shape as possible come the end of the month.”
Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano said jumping right into the qualifying round — 16 teams will battle in best-of-five series to fill out the usual playoff bracket — will be strange.
“Getting back out on the ice with the boys, being able to do drills full ice and work on our power play, work on our penalty kill, that felt real normal, felt real important,” he said. “Everyone is fresh and it sort of feels like the start of a regular camp.”
But it certainly isn’t.
Instead of playing a round of golf or attending a family barbecue, teammates were pushing themselves and each other Monday with an eye towards ultimately raising the Stanley Cup.
“It was nice to be back out there,” Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler said. “A little bit of normalcy in our lives and our routine.”
Leafs winger Mitch Marner said although the last month of voluntary skates in small groups were great following months of inaction, this felt different.
“You miss being around the guys,” he said. “It’s great to be back in the same room as everyone, and joking around and chirping each other again.”
The NHL announced a total of 30 players tested positive for COVID-19 during those voluntary skates from June 8 through Sunday, to go along with 13 others outside the return-to-play protocol.
The league added that over 600 players reported to their club’s training facilities for those optional workouts in small groups at their teams’ facilities, and that 4,934 COVID-19 tests were administered.
“It’s been a lot of work to get to this point,” Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning said. “We have to follow a lot of rules and the protocols, but I’m just excited that the guys are back out.”
And while the virus is never far from anyone’s mind, Monday was the first time in a long time it felt normal to talk hockey.
“To officially be back with the guys, (it’s) just so much fun,” Tavares said. “We’re still working for that same goal that we started all the way back in September. Obviously a little different, some of the circumstances.
“But we feel very fortunate that we got this chance.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 13, 2020.
-With files from Alexis Belanger-Champagne in Montreal, Dean Bennett in Edmonton, and Donna Spencer in Calgary.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press
Cover photo courtesy of the NHL via Twitter