Down the stretch they came, more than 80 percent of the way through the regular season, headed toward the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and then the NHL just …
The first concern is health and safety amid the coronavirus pandemic. That’s why the League paused the season March 12 and directed players to self-quarantine through at least April 4.
But from a hockey perspective, the players face a mental and physical challenge. They don’t have the camaraderie, structure, resources and motivation they usually do with their teams. They have to stay sharp and in shape not knowing when, if or how the season will resume.
“It’s hard to be stuck in limbo and to really not have an idea of a goal, like, maybe a date to kind of set yourself up for being at your peak when the puck is dropped,” Carolina Hurricanes center Jordan Staal said during a video call arranged by the NHL on Thursday.
At first, it might have felt like a break. Normally, the players don’t get this kind of time to rest and spend time with family until the offseason.
Not anymore, though. As Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin said, “It’s getting boring.”
“It’s getting to a point now where you’re just …” Columbus Blue Jackets forward Nick Foligno said, searching for the right words to describe a surreal situation. “You just start to now feel like things aren’t right, you know?”
The NHL hopes that the players will be able to work out in small groups and go through some type of training camp.
In the meantime, they’re on their own.
“It is important that they try to maintain their conditioning so that we could resume play if the conditions change substantially, but obviously it’s very difficult to do,” NHL chief medical officer Willem Meeuwisse said.
“One thing we know in sports medicine is that conditioning and training is highly sport-specific, both from an injury-prevention perspective, but also from a conditioning perspective. And it’s next to impossible for somebody to be skating at intensity under the circumstances we’re in right now.
“So it’s more of a do-what-you-can-do approach, where if players can work out at home in an isolated environment, that would be ideal. We do allow them, and maybe even encourage them, to get outside and get some fresh air, because that’s probably going to be an emerging public health message for everyone.”
Teams are guiding players from afar. Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said his strength and conditioning coach, Bill Burniston, has been finding out what each player has at his house.
“Then it’s, ‘OK, you have this? You do that. You don’t have that? This is another workout for you,'” Brind’Amour said. “It’s just trying to get guys doing something every day, not just sitting on the couch. That’s really all you can do right now.”
The circumstances differ greatly as the players ride out the pandemic across North America and Europe.
Not everyone is New Jersey Devils defenseman P.K. Subban, who is in Los Angeles working out with his fiancee, former Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn. He tweeted a video of him lying on his back and holding her in the air, using her body weight for an exercise.
Not everyone is Ovechkin, whose personal trainer, Pavel Burlachenko, usually comes to Washington to prepare him for the playoffs. They work out in the home gym, run in the street and play soccer. Ovechkin said it would be hard to push himself otherwise.
“Sometimes I don’t want to do it, but he said, ‘OK, let’s go. We have to work out,'” Ovechkin said. “It’s always a good time to sit on the couch, watch TV and play with the kid, but you never know when the season is coming back. You have to be in shape.”
Take New York Islanders forward Anders Lee. He’s living in an apartment on Long Island, and the apartment gym is closed. He ordered a Peloton so he can ride the stationary bike, and he jogs with his two dogs.
“One of them’s pulling me, and I’m pulling the other one,” Lee said. “We’re just trying to figure it out, doing the little things we can.”
That’s all anyone can do.
Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby has a bike at home in Pittsburgh. So does Philadelphia Flyers center Claude Giroux at home in Ottawa. New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal has a treadmill at home in Connecticut.
Foligno has a gym at home in Columbus and uses video conferencing to train with his strength coach and his brother, Minnesota Wild forward Marcus Foligno.
“The biggest thing you realize in this is how spoiled we are with the way we train now,” Foligno said. “It’s way different from the calisthenics that the older guys would do. You’re kind of going back to that Rocky mentality where you’re doing pushups and situps.”
Foligno said players felt caught in between. Are they training for the resumption of this season, whenever that might be, or next season? They don’t want to fall out of shape and hurt their team if the season resumes, but they don’t want to injure themselves training in ways they normally wouldn’t.
“It’s a trying time, but we’re going to find our way through it,” Foligno said. “It’s our job. We’re pros and athletes for a reason, so it’s something that we have to make sure we continue to do and be ready if called upon.”
NHL.com staff writer Tom Gulitti contributed to this report