“This isn’t training camp,” New York Rangers coach David Quinn said.
Technically it’s Phase 3 of the NHL Return to Play Plan and it signifies the training camp portion, but it was evident on Day One that these camps will be nothing like the ones players, coaches, executives and fans have come to know.
With 13 days before the teams travel to the two hub cities — the 12 Eastern Conference teams will be based in Toronto, the 12 Western Conference teams in Edmonton — for the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, this is a ramp-up to the main event, not the typical six-month prelude to it.
“We’re getting ready for [Stanley Cup] Playoffs,” Calgary Flames coach Geoff Ward said. “You can call the first round whatever you want, it’s playoffs. It’s a series against one team (Calgary plays the Winnipeg Jets). We’re looking at five rounds of playoffs for us to have an opportunity to win a Stanley Cup. That’s what we’re focused on. Guys have put the regular season away. Instead of preparing for a new year, we’re prepping for playoff hockey.”
It begins Aug. 1 with the Qualifiers, the start of Phase 4. The top four teams in each conference based on points percentage will play against each other in a three-game round-robin to determine each conference’s top four seeds for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The remaining eight teams in each conference will play best-of-5 series to determine who advances to the playoffs.
The losers of the eight best-of-5 series will each have an equal chance of winning the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft in the Second Phase of the NHL Draft Lottery, which will be conducted Aug. 10, the day before the playoffs begin.
Before any of that happens, the 24 teams returning to play after the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus have to get their games back up to speed, find chemistry, or rediscover it, and make decisions about starting goalies and depth players.
But most importantly, the players have to get reacquainted with their teammates and their jobs. That began in earnest Monday after players had been voluntary working out in small groups at team facilities since Phase 2 began June 8. It was a welcome change.
“It’s weird, it feels like we’ve been gone for a long time, then all of a sudden you get back out on the ice with the guys again and it just felt like three or four months went by like that,” Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. “It’s definitely weird to be here in July, getting into a little minicamp, but good to be around the boys for a couple of days. It’s been a strange time for everyone, but at least that felt somewhat normal.”
There were strict health and safety protocols to follow — there is testing for COVID-19 every other day, and symptom and temperature checks at facilities and at home — trainers and some coaches wore masks, and sessions with the media were conducted virtually. But teams did everything they could to make a hockey practice feel like a hockey practice.
“It’s a good feeling just to have a real practice with coaches on the ice,” Jets forward Mathieu Perreault said. “The last few days we skated with just the guys, and to then actually having a coach running the practice, the whistle, a guy scoring goals and cheering, it was actually a fun day today to get back on the ice and back to work.”
It went better than most players and coaches expected, with things being smoothly managed on and off the ice, from the testing protocols to simply moving the puck around, connecting on passes, and pushing hard with some contact drills.
“To be honest, we were surprised with how sharp and on-point the execution was,” Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis said. “I think a lot of people were going to expect rust, but guys looked sharp, guys looked in shape. The execution was high, and to be honest, it was a great first day.”
Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet marveled at the energy he saw in practice, and that it continued through a short scrimmage at the end.
“I expected everyone to be gassed halfway through,” Tocchet said, “and guys were hooting and hollering.”
The key, though, will be carrying it into Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and the rest of camp. The ability to do that at a fast pace is a great unknown.
“We can’t kill these guys,” Tocchet said. “We’re asking them to go from zero [mph] to 100 [mph], and how do we get to 100 without burning out the engine?”
For the coaches, there are also big decisions to come, such as who will be the starting goalie. At first glance, at least half of the participating teams do not have a designated No. 1 for their first game, provided everyone is healthy.
Those decisions will come in the next two weeks. Coaches weren’t going to be making them in one day, with one practice, after more than four months off.
But the evaluation of everybody and everything is now officially under way. The countdown to the restart of the season is on.
The NHL is back.
“It was just like the first day of school,” Predators coach John Hynes said.
NHL.com staff writers Tim Campbell, Tracey Myers, Mike G. Morreale and Brian Compton, and correspondents Alan Robinson and Aaron Vickers contributed to this report