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What you need to know about COVID-19: September 25, 2020
By all accounts, this will be a normal training camp.
It’s a format you’d expect any fall on any given year before the start of a National Hockey League season with groups of players, getting back into the groove of skating with each other, handling the puck, passing, shooting, battling and preparing to kick things off for real.
Except nothing about this situation is normal.
With the COVID-19 pandemic shifting the world, the NHL paused the regular season on March 12. Life has returned to a (somewhat) new normal and the NHL is well on its way to salvaging the 2019-20 campaign in a ‘Return to Play’ plan.
Almost four months to the day after the season was put on hold, Phase 3 begins Monday as teams hit the ice in mid-summer to begin preparations for a makeshift pre-playoff round to determine who will compete for the Stanley Cup.
For the Calgary Flames, that means hitting the ice at a completely sanitized and sterile Scotiabank Saddledome and getting ready to face the Winnipeg Jets in a best-of-five series.
“It is unprecedented,” said Flames head coach Geoff Ward who, as per the NHL mandate, has not been able to physically watch his players skate prior to Monday and the start of Phase 3. “But I think we’re approaching it like the playoffs are a great time of the year. We’re not looking at the ‘play-in’ like the regular season, obviously. It’s a round of five against another team. For us, we’re seeing everything that’s involved in this right now is a playoff situation. The fact that we’re playing at this time of the year and, in our minds, we’re playing games that matter now — that’s exciting for everybody. You can see the veteran players, in talking with the assistant coaches, the veteran players are excited about the prospect of what lies ahead. The coaches are excited, the management is excited. You can’t take the playoffs for granted. When you get there, you have to enjoy it. And we certainly are.”
The Flames’ coaching staff has been meeting with players regularly through web calls and sending video, analyzing parts of their game based on footage from the 2019-20 regular season. Preparations have been taking place over the last four months to ensure players know what to expect when they hit the ice on Monday.
“It was a tough process not knowing what to do,” said Flames forward Mikael Backlund of the preamble before the NHL officially released plans. “It was hard to leave my family, but it was nice to have a decision made. Was I going? Or was I staying? But I’ll be excited to get going.”
Backlund is not alone.
At the time of the NHL pause, the Flames were 70 games into the season with a 36-27-7 record and, with 12 games remaining, were just beginning to play some of their best hockey of the year — which would have been ideal timing considering that NHL playoffs usually take place in the spring.
But they were delivered an abrupt ending to their regular-season campaign, and their entire world were flipped upside down. Players went their separate ways and to their homes in different directions: to Sweden, Czech Republic, the U.S., and across Canada.
Now, they’re back and will spend the next few weeks bracing for the Jets, a team they only faced once on Oct. 26 in a 2-1 overtime loss at Mosaic Stadium in the 2019 Heritage Classic outdoor game.
“Conditions were way different,” pointed out Flames forward Milan Lucic. “The rink was different. There was snow that night, so the puck was bouncing everywhere. Whatever we get from a read on them is going to be from basically video and us just preparing and worrying about ourselves.
“To me, that’s kind of the angle we have to take.”
And, according to Lucic, it’s why Phase 3 is so important, almost more crucial than what a regular training camp is meant to accomplish.
“Because you don’t have 82 games to figure it out,” he said. “You have to figure it out off the bat. Some pressure goes on all 24 coaches (of teams still in the hunt for the 2020 Stanley Cup) in a sense in how they get their team ready and prepared.”
A different approach, indeed.
“I mean, you don’t usually have to jump right into it,” said Flames netminder Cam Talbot. “You get seven or eight exhibition games and get a chance to feel it out a bit. Jumping into a playoff scenario is not going to be easy for anybody. I think it’s whoever is the most well-prepared and came to camp ready to go is going to get the best opportunity. I hope that’s us. A bunch of guys have been here for a while now and have been champing at the bit.
“It’s going to be different but it’s going to be fun.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020