This is the time of year NHL players have usually checked out. The Stanley Cup has been handed out, the draft is over and most free agents have found new teams. Not much to do but hit the links or slip on the flip-flops and head to the beach.
But these are not ordinary times. We are approaching the Stanley Cups playoffs, yet parts of this continent are entering a major heat wave. But while every hockey’s players’ calendar is off, those participating in the 24-team tournament have to find a way to regain that laser focus they usually start honing around April Fool’s Day.
Brad Marchand believes in the collective mindset of his team, but conceded that it doesn’t yet feel like the most important games of the 2019-20 season are on deck.
“It definitely doesn’t feel like we’re going into the Stanley Cup playoffs,” said Marchand prior to the B’s practice on Saturday. “I think that once we get there (Toronto), it’ll be a little bit different, but right now it does have more of a training camp feel. But we’ve always had a pretty driven, committed group and I don’t think that’s changed at all.
“I was actually really impressed with how the first few days have gone. Guys look really sharp and look like they’ve been taking care of themselves and doing what they’ve had to away from the rink to stay committed and focused. And I think it just comes down to that we’re all in this together. We’re going to go out there and be quarantined, stuck in a bubble not allowed to do a whole lot, so we might as well make the most of it and make it worthwhile. The last thing you want to do is go up there and not be committed and make it all for nothing.
“I think we believe in our group and the kind of the mentality we’ve built amongst our guys. That’s one thing the management group and the coaching staff have done a great job of, bringing guys in that want to be here and are committed. They don’t need to be pushed, it’s just internal. And I think that’s why we’re a good team.”
Perhaps the one comparable situation to this for Marchand is when he played in the World Cup of Hockey in the late summer of 2016. While players were able to step into that event and create an intense, meaningful tournament, Marchand doesn’t feel there’s much from even that experience on which he can draw as he prepares for this unique tourney.
“This is going to be different from anything. It’s almost like going back to being a kid again and going to a tournament where you’re watching other teams play right after you finish your game and go watch the next one,” Marchand said. :You all stay at the same hotel. This is more like being a kid than anything, except you’re not allowed to go anywhere and do anything other than play hockey, which is a good thing, right?
“It’s going to take being mentally strong to go there and be willing to stay in a hotel that long, be cooped up and away from your families. But at the end of the day it’s going to be worth it if you win.”
The B’s are also getting a lesson in how precarious this all may be. Top goal-scorer David Pastrnak is currently in quarantine because he came in contact with someone who has COVID-19 (because of the NHL’s stringent secrecy rules regarding the virus, it was left up to Pastrnak’s agent to say that his client has tested negative) and has been out of action since Wednesday.
“It’s news to me about Pasta. I just though he was on a couple day hangover,” joked Marchand at first. “Yeah, it’s unfortunate the times that we’re in but I guess it’s a new reality, for right now anyway. Teams are going to have to be willing to be resilient and battle though it.
“And we’ve done that over the last number of years, where we’ve had a lot of guys out and going through a lot of injuries. But there’s definitely that chance, that a team is going to be in a conference final or finals and lose one of their top guys. I would expect that the way things are going to be set up that once we get into the bubble, I can’t imagine that many guys are going to be sick. It’s going to be pretty locked-down and we’re going to be kept well away from everybody else and it’s going to be clean.”
Marchand is already thinking of ways to deal with what he expects will be some level of monotony once they get to Toronto. He talked about bringing some board games, books and his guitar. Marchand is also toying with the idea of taking an online business course.
But while certain freedoms will be curtailed when the teams get to Toronto, Marchand is looking on the bright side.
“We’re fortunate enough just to be playing,” said Marchand. “You look around the world right now and see what everybody’s going through. We’re fortunate to be doing what we love to do and get paid to do. Maybe things are a little different but we should feel very fortunate for the opportunity to play again, especially with the group that we have and the opportunity that we have. It will be different. It’s going to be an even playing field for everybody If you look at the way every regular season starts, that’s essentially what this is, we’re starting from scratch again.
“Some of the worst teams in the league sometimes start out as the best. You look at Buffalo last year. They were one of the best teams early on and it faded away. But that’s how it could play out. Any team can come out real hot and some of the best teams could be really cold early. It’s going to make for a very interesting playoff for the fans and for us to be a part of. I’m just feeling grateful to be able to play again.”
Marchand also hopes he and his NHL brethren can bring some reality-based entertainment to the masses after a long absence.
“There are only so many good shows on Netflix that you can go through before you want to watch some sports and hockey,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter what sport it is. But I think it’s going to be great for everybody with the schedule. They’re going to have something new and exciting to watch and enjoy and are excited to follow. Hopefully it can bring some joy when there’s a lot of grief going around.”
A significant number of players missed Saturday’s practice session at Warrior Ice Arena. The B’s were without Torey Krug, Tuukka Rask, David Krejci, Charlie Coyle, Nick Ritchie, Sean Kuraly and Chris Wagner. Ondrej Kase, like Pastrnak, missed his third straight day. Coach Bruce Cassidy, hands tied by league policy, could only say they fell into the “unfit to participate” category but did add that they had no injuries.
“There’s always different reasons,” said Cassidy. “There’s the quarantine rules, waiting on tests results, there’s a number of different things that factor into this (and you should) not automatically assume we have a positive test. I told you (assistant coach) Kevin Dean had to miss a couple of days because he was in the vicinity of someone who tested positive so to be on the safe side we kept him away. There’s a little bit of that going on this week. We want to get to Toronto as healthy as possible.”
Coaches like Cassidy have been put in the uncomfortable position of possibly withholding information that would have been, before the pandemic, considered basic. He had no problem with Pastrnak’s agent trying to clear things up.
“We’re protecting the players’ rights. They collectively bargained that to come back. So if they want to put it out there, any information why they’re not at practice, yeah, it makes my life easier,” said Cassidy.
Marchand was bitterly disappointed two years ago when the NHL did not send its players to the Olympics in South Korea. In the new CBA, the the league has a commitment to go to the next two Games (pending approval from the governing bodies). While he knows he has no guarantee to make Team Canada, Marchand is happy the chance is there.
“I just think anyone who as the opportunity to play at that level, that’s the ultimate tournament to play in. That’s where the best of the best or their sport in the entire world play,” said Marchand. “We were held out of that last time, which I don’t think was right but I also think we were going to be allowed to go to the China Olympics. I think they knew that before the last one. They want to grow the game in China. It’s not a secret, so why would we not go to the Olympics in China?
“I always felt that the NHL missing the last one, that they would go to the next one. But I do think it’s right for players to have that opportunity. Personally for me, I’m not saying I’m going to be there, but hopefully potentially I’ll get a look and never thought that would be the case growing up. Obviously, everything has to line up and go well up to that point, but I think it’s special for for everyone to get that opportunity. That’s a very big sage to play on. It would be very special.”