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Toronto Maple Leafs centre John Tavares, seen here on Feb. 7, 2020, was on the ice with teammates for the second time in 24 hours on Tuesday as the NHL moved into Phase 2 of its return-to-play protocol.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

It took a global pandemic, but hockey in June has finally arrived in Toronto.

A few Maple Leafs have returned to the ice for the first time in three months since the NHL season was suspended because of the spread of COVID-19.

A trickle of players are stretching their legs, practising passing and physical distancing, but it is still a relief after 88 days of isolation.

“It has been fantastic to just be at the rink,” John Tavares, the Toronto captain, said Tuesday after skating for 45 minutes at the club’s facility in Etobicoke with Ilya Mikheyev, Jake Muzzin and Jack Campbell. “I can’t even describe what it has been like to be back at the facility with teammates.

“Even if they are wearing masks, it has been a blast to see their faces, interact, train together and be in the gym again.”

Practice is not mandatory at this early stage of reopening and players have to be tested for the novel coronavirus and are only allowed to gather in small groups. If all goes according to plan as restrictions are lifted, the season that was suspended on March 12 will resume at the end of July or early in August with the playoffs.

The field for the Stanley Cup has been expanded to 24 teams from the usual 16, with the Maple Leafs set to meet the Columbus Blue Jackets in a best-of-five series in the opening round. The site of that series is yet to be determined as the league mulls staging all postseason games at two venues.

The latest game Toronto has played in any season is May 31, 1999, when it bowed out of the Eastern Conference final in five games against the Buffalo Sabres. In 2002, the Maple Leafs’ final contest was an overtime defeat on May 28 in the conference finals against Carolina.

“There are a lot of ways to look at this, but at the end of the day we are still competing for the Stanley Cup,” Tavares said Tuesday via a Zoom call with media arranged by the team. “Urgency is extremely high to take advantage of this opportunity, to embrace it and to not take it for granted.”

Toronto emerged from a tough start to finish 36-25-9 in the regular season. It sat behind Boston and Tampa Bay in the Atlantic Division and was in position to play the Lightning in the first round until the playoff format was revised.

Auston Matthews was on pace to become the team’s first player to reach 50 goals since Dave Andreychuk in 1993-94 when the season was interrupted. In a campaign shortened to 70 games, Matthews ended up matching the 47 Tavares scored a year ago.

Tavares, 29, said this will likely be the first time he has played hockey in August that meant anything since he tried out for Canada’s under-18 team. The past three months have presented a mental and emotional challenge.

“Early on, when COVID-19 was at its peak, it was difficult being distant from your loved ones for so long,” he said. “Once you realized the seriousness of this, there were a lot of things to do to keep everyone safe, especially those closest to you.

“But I didn’t just want for things get back to normal, I wanted to maximize this time in my life. I didn’t want to look back at it afterward and think I had wasted my time.”

As racial protests spread across the United States recently and the Black Lives Matter campaign gained momentum, Tavares said he reached out to P.K. Subban, the African-Canadian defenceman who plays for the New Jersey Devils, for advice.

“I think I need to do a better job of educating and listening to do everything I can to change the [direction]," he said. "I think we all wish we did a better job beforehand. We need to develop a meaningful plan to eradicate this issue. It is something we don’t want in our game and in our society.”

Tavares looks forward to the time when more teammates will be able to practise together, resume normal workouts and make a run in the playoffs.

“So many people are going through tough times,” he said. “To be an athlete and be fortunate to play a game for a living and pursue the Stanley Cup will be special. It is a great opportunity for us to do something for our society and a great thing to take people’s minds off COVID-19.”

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