It’s been a weird few months for anyone involved the sporting circles. With leagues across North America and beyond originally going on temporary pauses, hiatuses and breaks due to the then threat of ‘coronavirus’, the seriousness of the now COVID-19 pandemic prompted the cancellation of many seasons, while some sporting leagues have been forced to permanently close their doors.
For the over $5 billion corporation that is the National Hockey League, the pandemic did not permanently sever ties between the league, its owners and players, however, seemingly built a stronger bond and relationship between the league and the Players’ Association. Coming together in agreement on an extension to the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, as well as the implementation of the Return to Play Committee, the over 700 current players belonging to the league appear to have walked away in an overall mood of happiness.
Is the new CBA perfect? No. Is the Return-to-Play module ideal for young, rich, 20-year-old men looking to live it up during the postseason? No. Is the playoff structure and hub-city model the best option for those with families unable to travel along? No. Is there zero risk of contracting the virus as a player once settled into the postseason host city? No.
But, does the new protocol give players a chance to finish the 2019-20 season and potentially see the Stanley Cup awarded? Yes.
With the Winnipeg Jets having been the last of the 24 teams involved in the Qualifying Round and Round Robin Tournament to get back on the ice for voluntary training and individual workouts, training camp from Winnipeg’s Bell MTS Iceplex has now been happening for nearly two weeks. Players are slowly returning to form, while others have hit the ice for just a handful of sessions, as mysterious, or not so mysterious ailments have kept them sidelined.
With the NHL’s new policy on players being deemed ‘unfit to practice’ or ‘unfit to play’ as the only allowable verbiage when discussing injuries, discipline, illnesses or positive COVID-19 test results, fans, media and others are forced to speculate on the severity of the potential player setbacks.
For instance, defenceman Anthony Bitetto, who had missed each of the past eight training camp skates made his debut with teammates Thursday, working out alongside the second group of players. He announced following the skate that his absence was, in fact, due to a positive COVID-19 test from back on June 24. His isolation period included 29 total days between Nashville and Winnipeg. Bitetto’s symptoms were mild, but he remained away from teammates until team doctors gave him the full go-ahead to resume his training.
“I feel very lucky to have had minor symptoms,” Bitetto said post skate. “I didn’t have it bad by any means. There were days I woke up and I was completely fine and I’m like ‘I have this virus? How?’ It didn’t make any sense. It was nothing like I’ve ever had.”
Although most players are taking this Return-to-Play groundwork rather seriously, others may have slightly different agendas. With NBA players already living within the confines of their ‘bubble’ in Orlando, photos and videos have surfaced online in regards to the significant hoarding to which some players are participating. Whether its food items, clothing, workout equipment or games, the storylines continue to spew in near-volcanic fashion.
Following Thursday’s skate, Jets youngster Patrik Laine made headlines with his comments in a Zoom chat with reporters on his expecting hoarding – or lack there of.
“Just my gaming station, that’s pretty much it for me. And a toothbrush, but that’s it,” the 22-year-old replied, when asked what he ‘must have’ with him inside his hotel room in Edmonton.
“I haven’t played without fans before, so that’s kind of new to me but you can hear everyone on the ice,” Laine added. “You can hear your opponents talk, you can just hear everything. So I just think that’s going to be weird, but it’s still the same sport. Everybody still has sticks and there is one puck on the ice, so that’s still the same sport, but no fans. I think it’ll be good, and it’s the same situation for everybody.”
Slowly finding their way back to the fold, the Jets implemented some contact drills over the past number of skates, moving away from simple flow patterns, while scrimmaging to close out Thursday’s skate.
“We still have stuff that we need to cover,” said head coach Paul Maurice. “We used the middle part of this week more for dealing with some of Calgary’s major systems and how they affect how we play. Then last week we wanted to ensure that we return to focus on the Jets and not be particularly Calgary specific. So it’s just a scheduling thing, to get us ready here and then prepare for the Vancouver game and then we’ll get ready to roll.”
Winnipeg will take on the Canucks in Edmonton on Wednesday, July 29, at 9:30 PM central, before beginning its best-of-five play-in, Qualifying Round series with the Calgary Flames on Saturday, August 1, also at 9:30 PM.