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Ed Willes: August playoffs feel weird, but hockey feels normal for energized Canucks

Part of Travis Green's job as coach of the Vancouver Canucks will be to make the abnormal seem normal for his players as they get set to open training camp on Monday, July 13.
Part of Travis Green's job as coach of the Vancouver Canucks will be to make the abnormal seem normal for his players as they get set to open training camp on Monday, July 13.

After four months away from the game, Travis Green and the Vancouver Canucks are about to step though the looking glass and enter a world unlike anything they’ve experience in their professional lives.

It’s small things: The hotel pool inside the bubble will be open but the spa will not. And big things: Some players will be away from their families for up to five weeks.

It’s the annoying things: having a swab stuck up your nose on a daily basis. And the worrisome things: can the testing procedures on which so much depends be trusted to deliver timely, accurate results?

Throw in NHL playoff games without fans, an early-August start date and a Stanley Cup Final about the time teams should be reporting for training camps and you can understand why the foreseeable future represents a journey into the unknown.

That journey also begins in six days for Green and his team and if all this is a little jarring, the Canucks head coach can say one thing: It beats the hell out of the alternative.

“I mean there are so many uncertainties in every aspect of everyone’s life,” Green said over the phone late Tuesday afternoon after a day consumed with organizational meetings and planning which still didn’t include the players.

“There are lots of nights when you’re lying there, thinking about everything and wondering when it’s going to come back. You take the things people really love away from them and it gives you a good perspective.

“There are a lot of people whose lives have been turned upside down (by the COVID-19 pandemic). It’s been trying times for a lot of people. We’re lucky. We get to do something we love.”

Like he said, the last four months have provided some perspective.

The NHL’s much-anticipated return to play plan has been unveiled and while it is only slightly less complicated than NAFTA — Does the bus driver belong in Group 4? Group 3? What about the hotel bartender? — it signals hockey will be played this summer in some form.

What that form looks like, of course, is a matter of some interpretation but for Green and the rest of the Canucks, that’s a secondary consideration.

The primary focus, the coach maintains, is what it’s always been and on that basis, there is something familiar about what lies ahead. There will be a practice in six days. In just over two weeks, there will be a best-of-five play-in series against the Minnesota Wild in the closest thing the Canucks have been to the playoffs in five years.

That much he knows.

As for the rest of it, we don’t have the time or space to capture the bizarro existence that awaits the Canucks and that’s something else Green is aware of as he prepares for this singular moment. As much as anything, his job is to normalize the abnormal, to take these unprecedented circumstances and find the familiar in them.

On Tuesday, Green met with the coaches, broke down video, planned practices, then met with GM Jim Benning, all while trying to familiarize himself with the many and varied protocols in the master plan.

You wouldn’t exactly call it a routine day but neither was it completely out of the ordinary.

“I think there’s going to a be a lot of analyzing,” Green said. “How’s it going to feel? What’s it going to look like? It’s unchartered waters but I want our group to be excited about it. I want them to talk about it. I want them to be open. I think that goes a long way.”

Green, in fact, has spoken extensively over his three years with the Canucks about building a team that loves the game and everything that goes with it. You have to have it embedded in your DNA when you’re trying to survive the seven-month forced march that is the NHL’s schedule. But it becomes even more important when there are no fans in the stands and the team is stuck in Edmonton for an undetermined period.

“We’ve talked about being a team that loves hockey and loves to win and these guys love to play hockey,” he said. “I have full confidence our guys are going to be excited to play and excited to win.”

Chris Tanev, as it happens, held a Zoom session earlier Tuesday and echoed Green’s thoughts. The veteran defenceman is set to become an unrestricted free agent following this season. There are no guarantees on what the market will deliver or where he’ll be playing next season.

So what, says Tanev. Drop the puck.

“I can only speak for myself, but I’m super excited,” he said. “Just skating with the guys this week you get that feeling back like it’s September, except now it’s July. I’m ready to play hockey.”

Finally he can say that.

“First of all we’re excited,” Green said. “You can feel the energy levels getting higher. That for me is the real positive. You’re doing something you’ve been doing your whole life.”

Even if you’ve never done it this way before.

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