While the top stars had the hockey world’s attention in Sochi it was back to work on Wednesday for the NHL players who were left behind.
Montreal Canadiens defenceman Josh Gorges said it felt like the first day of training camp as the team resumed on-ice practice after a 10-day break.
“The guys were excited to see each other and talk about how their trips were and how the time off was and what they did,” said Gorges. “It’s kind of funny. You have these grown men, but as soon as we get back together, guys are laughing like a bunch of little kids.”
Many players went south on vacation and came back tanned, but Gorges said he spent the break quietly with his wife.
He said it was a welcome relief from a busier than usual NHL schedule, with teams playing more back-to-back games to fit the 82-game season around the Olympic pause.
“Usually in an Olympic year the schedule is condensed, so you’re playing a lot more games in a shorter period of time, so you need this little break in between,” he said. “It’s long, but you roll with it.
“Everyone’s in the same position. It’s good to get a rest, get away from the game, and get ready for that last push before the playoffs.”
The Canadiens had seven players in Sochi, including both of their goalies — Canada’s Carey Price and Slovakia’s Peter Budaj.
So former Canadiens goalie Jocelyn Thibault and former American Hockey League netminder Martin Houle suited up for the practice. They also brought in former defenceman Patrice Brisebois, conditioning coach Pierre Allard and scouting co-ordinator Ken Morin to have a full complement of players.
Others away at the Olympics were Russian defencemen Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin, Canadian counterpart P.K. Subban, U.S. winger Max Pacioretty and Czech centre Tomas Plekanec.
Montreal head coach Michel Therrien was not at the skate, so it was unclear whether players who made it to the medal games would get extra time off.
At the Canadiens’ suburban practice facility, the first few days will be used to work on conditioning and get reacquianted with skating and handling the puck.
The break also allowed some injuries to heal.
Montreal winger Travis Moen missed Montreal’s last two games before the break with what the team called a lower-body injury, but returned feeling much better. He hopes to be ready when play resumes with a visit next Wednesday from Canadian Olympic head coach Mike Babcock and the Detroit Red Wings.
“That’s the goal for sure,” said Moen, back from a trip to Florida. “It took the break to heal up and now I’m ready to get back at it.
“I did some rehabbing (in Florida) at a clinic. With the scheduling this year, it was nice to get that break. And it came at a good time for me, getting injured and stuff.”
Alex Galchenyuk was also back skating with his teammates for the first time since he fractured his right hand, missing 15 games. The forward also hopes to be ready to play.
The practice started 10 minutes late as players watched Canada’s surprisingly tight battle with Latvia at the Olympics. They took the ice within seconds of Shea Weber’s game-winning goal in the third period, confident that Canada would close out the 2-1 victory.
“It’s exciting to watch,” said Gorges, a Kelowna, B.C., native. “You knew Canada was just waiting for an opportunity to finally put one in. They had the puck the entire game. (Latvia’s) goalie played outstanding, but Canada found a way.”
He didn’t watch a lot of Olympic hockey, but enough to be impressed at how Price performed in goal.
“Probably the biggest difference for him is not having as much action as he’s used to,” said Gorges. “I’m sure it’s tough when you don’t see a shot for five or 10 minutes at a time and then there’s a breakdown and he has to come up with a big save.
“It’s hard to stay in the moment, but I think that’s why he’s there. He’s good at staying in the moment.”
He had no opinion on Subban being left out of the lineup for all but one game thus far by Babcock, who will no doubt hear about that from Canadiens fans when the Red Wings visit.
“It’s not up to me to decide,” said Gorges. “It’s up to the coaches and management staff and they make their decision.”
Canada’s Olympic semifinal will be a showdown with the U.S. on Friday, which could make for some lively banter in the Canadiens room as Price goes up against Pacioretty. Montreal’s roster includes Americans Galchenyuk, Brian Gionta and George Parros.
“That will be an interesting game,” said Gorges. “The problem with single game eliminations is that any team can beat any team once. Obviously I’m cheering for Canada, but the U.S. has a good team, so I don’t know.”