So, Kevin Cheveldayoff, just what might summer hockey in empty arenas, after an unprecedented months-long hiatus caused by a global pandemic, look like? Bowling-shoe ugly, right? Heck, even your own star sniper, Patrik Laine, recently confessed he was probably going to be “terrible” after being off skates so long.
“It’s going to be beautiful,” the Winnipeg Jets general manager insisted Wednesday. “It’s going to be beautiful.”
Perhaps a case here of beauty being in the eye of the beholder, but Cheveldayoff’s prediction wasn’t all that surprising, given the circumstances. After all, for the first time since the NHL was put on indefinite pause in mid-March, there’s a detailed plan taking shape to get players back on the ice.
The excitement in the hockey world is palpable, the potential return promising a real sight for sore eyes.
Many obstacles remain, and there’s no guarantee things go as hoped. Health and government officials, along with the players themselves, will ultimately need to sign off on each step along the way before the puck drops, but optimism is indeed growing, especially with the COVID-19 curve flattening in many jurisdictions.
Up first is allowing small groups of fewer than six to skate, set to begin imminently and include rigid safety provisions laid out by the league, along with repeated testing, something the Jets are working on with government and health officials.
A decision has yet to be made as to whether that will happen at Bell MTS Iceplex or Bell MTS Place. Small-group skates will be followed by getting all players back into their club cities with full training camps likely beginning in early July.
Only a few players are currently in Winnipeg, with the majority back at their summer homes elsewhere in Canada, the United States and Europe. Getting everyone back in town won’t be easy, especially with current provisions requiring a mandatory 14-day quarantine.
“I do know it is a topic of major discussion between the league, Players’ Association and the various governments, whether it’s the Canadian government or, I believe, there’s probably jurisdictions in the U.S. that have somewhat similar restrictions. It’s something that’s staring us right in the face, and I know that a lot of people are dealing with it,” said Cheveldayoff.
“Right now, I have to respect all the players’ decisions and take it as their personal decision and be there to support them throughout this phase and wait to see what the days and weeks bring us. As we’ve seen throughout this whole thing, things change day to day and certainly week to week, and we’ll keep an open mind.”
At this point, he said there is no consideration of the Jets taking their camp south of the border.
Once players are back up to speed, a 24-team tournament would start near the end of July in two chosen hub cities and end with the Stanley Cup being awarded in September. For the Jets, that means a best-of-five “play-in” series against the Calgary Flames. The winner would play the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, which would be one of St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas or Dallas, depending on the results of their own round-robin tournament.
“It’s an interesting time. There’s nothing that’s normal. Ironically, we were going to play Calgary next. We left Edmonton after beating them (on March 11, which actually cost the Oilers a first-round bye, it turns out) and flew to Calgary, knowing we were probably within a point of each other at that point and were battling hard against each other,” Cheveldayoff said.
“This game, all you ask for is a chance. And if you’d asked at the pause, if you threw out this scenario in front of us, would you embrace that in order to have hockey continued on and an eventual champion crowned at the end of it? I think everyone would have taken it.”
Not everyone is happy with the plan, including some players and executives who have voiced concerns both privately and publicly. Cheveldayoff isn’t one of them.
“When you sit there and think about all the different questions, all the different ways to go about it, I’m sure there were 31 different opinions solicited to the league office and what (commissioner) Gary Bettman said, none of them were ever dismissed out of hand. I think everyone had their voice heard. From that standpoint, I really applaud the outcome of at least the format they’ve come up with,” he said.
Cheveldayoff expects to have the whole roster ready to go, with the possible exception of centre Bryan Little, who continues to recover from a devastating head and ear injury suffered last November. He believes teams will be able to carry expanded rosters of approximately 28 skaters and three goaltenders, meaning a handful of prospects with the Manitoba Moose could also join the so-called taxi squad.
“I think there has to be a method to how they do get back on the ice. This is going to be a managed process by them. They know their bodies. They know how they train in the summer. I think just going out and skating every single day for the next eight weeks is probably not the way these players, these athletes who are finely tuned athletes, are going to approach it. There’s going to be a method for them to get that process, to ramp it up” said Cheveldayoff.
Moose bench boss Pascal Vincent, and possibly other staff on the AHL squad, will be brought in to help, in the absence of Todd Woodcroft, who left his assistant coaching spot recently to accept a college head coaching job in Vermont.
Once the current season is finally in the books, Cheveldayoff and his colleagues would be off to the races on an abbreviated off-season which would include a modified online draft and free-agency, which might not be the frenzy of old, considering the league’s salary cap may take a big hit.
“There’s a lot of things are out there that are working on parallel tracks right now, just trying to understand what the future may be like. Some days it’s overwhelming, some days you’re on calls all day long. There’s nothing normal. You plan and you just have to be prepared to change that plan and be flexible,” hed said.
And, of course, look for the beauty — which is something Cheveldayoff is doing plenty of these days.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
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