The Maple Leafs and 23 other NHL teams got their first taste of pandemic hockey on Monday as the league moved closer to a return to play after a four-month pause due to the spread of COVID-19.
Toronto president Brendan Shanahan, general manager Kyle Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe all wore face coverings as the first day of an unprecedented two-week summer camp unfolded at the Ford Performance Centre.
It was unusually quiet at first as players followed netminder Frederik Andersen onto the ice. The silence was broken only by the sound of pucks raking against the boards and clanking off goalposts and crossbars.
A smaller-than-usual gathering of journalists watched from carefully spaced positions marked with Xs on the floor to assure physical distancing. Health screenings were done and temperature readings were taken before members of the media were admitted to the arena. Face masks were mandatory.
The same measures were implemented by each of the two-dozen organizations that are preparing for rejigged playoffs that begin with a qualifying round on Aug. 1, provided the contagious respiratory illness can be kept in check.
The Pittsburgh Penguins sidelined nine team members on Monday who are feared to have been exposed secondarily to the novel coronavirus. Around the league, 43 players have tested positive so far, including Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews.
The 22-year-old contracted COVID-19 near his home in Arizona last month.
“I can’t really pinpoint when and where I got it,” Matthews said on a video call with sportswriters after practice. Matthews said he had no symptoms, but was forced to quarantine for two weeks.
Anxious teammates reached out to him when they heard he might be ill.
“I saw the report and texted him right away,” Mitch Marner said. “This is not a joke, and it is nothing to take lightly.”
A half-dozen players opted to not return to their teams because they or their family members have pre-existing health conditions that make it especially risky if they came down with the virus. Montreal’s Max Domi, who has Type-1 diabetes, has reached an agreement with the Canadiens to wait another week to 10 days before he decides.
All but one of the 34 players Toronto invited to camp participated on the first day. The only person missing was defenceman Timothy Liljegren, who spent most of the season in the American Hockey League.
“Timothy was unfit to play here today,” Keefe said vaguely.
So much has changed since hockey crashed to a halt on March 12. More than 571,000 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19 worldwide, and protests against racial injustice have spread over the deaths of Black men at the hands of white police officers.
In recognition of that, Maple Leafs players will wear Black Lives Matter T-shirts beneath their jerseys from now until the end of the season. They donned them as a group for the first time on Monday.
“We wanted to continue that message and stand with the movement,” Matthews said. “I try to treat everybody equally. I try to judge [people] by their heart and their character, not by their race.”
The initiative was driven by the players and supported by management.
“We want to be part of the conversation,” John Tavares, the team’s captain, said. “We need to stand up against racism in all forms in our society and in our community here in Toronto.”
Tavares is delighted to have an opportunity to complete the season.
“I think we all feel very fortunate to get this chance,” he said.
The biggest challenge, of course, will be to stay healthy.
“We’ve seen cases rise in the U.S.,” Tavares said. “We have to be really smart and really understand how you [are] exposed[d]. It’s a crucial time.”
Players were split into two groups in their first day back and took part in fast-paced scrimmages. They were given little time to rest between shifts as a means to help them regain playing condition.
Ilya Mikheyev, a promising rookie from Russia who was sidelined on Dec. 27 when an artery and tendons were severed in his right wrist, looked especially sharp. So did Andersen and Nick Robertson, an 18-year-old left wing who scored 55 goals in 46 games this year for Peterborough in the Ontario Hockey League.
Mostly, players were happy after months of boredom and isolation.
“It’s just nice to be back, to be in Toronto with all of my teammates, doing what we all love,” Matthews said.
Morgan Rielly said the biggest adjustment he has had to make is to wear a mask at all times when off the ice. Zach Hyman professed to getting used to the precautions, and says he has now been tested for COVID-19 countless times.
“It is the new normal for the Stanley Cup playoffs,” Hyman said.
The NHL has returned after a long layoff with a vast number of safety measures in place. All interviews with players and coaches are now being done via Zoom.
Everyone thinks that is fine. Not so long ago, they were worried that hockey was done, perhaps for a long time.
“I think everybody had those concerns,” Keefe said. “There was so much uncertainty. I was afraid we wouldn’t be able to come back.”