EDMONTON — They flew out of Edmonton the night of March 11 under a dark cloud of speculation and uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On Sunday, the Winnipeg Jets returned to Oil Country with a much clearer view of the sporting landscape, albeit one that is barely recognizable.
It’s safe to say a few things have changed since their last visit 137 days ago.
Remember that season-high four game-winning streak following an impressive victory over Connor McDavid’s crew? Yeah, that’s gone. So is the club’s 37-28-6 record, along with the remaining three weeks of the NHL regular season for that matter.
Many of the freedoms that typically come with big-league travel are also a thing of the past.
Case in point: The Jets touched down here in their temporary hockey home — and were immediately sent to their rooms. They must remain there for 72 hours, save for being escorted to and from the rink for closed-door practices today and Tuesday and an exhibition game against Vancouver on Wednesday.
No socializing. No shopping. No recreation. No restaurants. No bars. No exceptions.
This is a key requirement under the league’s return-to-play protocols. Winnipeg, along with 23 other teams still in the hunt for the Stanley Cup, boarded charters in their home markets at various times on Sunday following a two-week summer training camp and entered the so-called “bubble” in the two hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto.
“We have a slot to fly in. You can’t just roll into Edmonton any time you want. There’s a slot for us to land so all the teams can be processed into the hotel without having three teams sitting in the lobby with no social distancing. So it’s that detailed,” said coach Paul Maurice.
All players are now required to self-isolate for the first three days while also being tested daily for COVID-19, along with temperature and symptoms scans. They can start hanging out with teammates in common areas inside the bubble later in the week, but they won’t be allowed outside of the secure area until at least two weeks have passed. At that point, the 24-team field will have been reduced to 16, and some organized excursions may be planned.
“Make sure you bring a lot of clean underwear and that’s about it.” ‐ Mark Scheifele
“I’m just excited to play hockey again. It doesn’t take much to make me happy, as long as there’s a hockey stick in my hand I’m pretty happy. So, I’m ready to get rolling and get to Edmonton and play some hockey,” Jets centre Mark Scheifele said following his team’s practice on Saturday at Bell MTS Iceplex.
“It doesn’t matter what it’s going to look like. At the end of the day, we’re there to play hockey, so that’s my thought. We’re going with all our best friends into this bubble and we’re going to play the game we love, so that’s the only thought I have.”
Winnipeg, along with Calgary, Vancouver, Minnesota, Arizona and Chicago, each have a floor to themselves at the Sutton Place Hotel. St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, Dallas, Nashville and Edmonton will be housed in the brand new JW Marriott. Both facilities are in Edmonton’s Ice District, which was a hub of activity this weekend as final preparations to secure the area were being made.
It’s a similar set-up in Toronto, with six Eastern Conference teams in one hotel, and six others in a second facility.
Unlike a normal road trip, players have no clue how long this one will last. For the Jets, the stay could be as short as 10 days, if they were to quickly lose a best-of-five qualifying round series to the Flames that begins on Saturday night at Rogers Place. Or it could be as long as two-and-a-half months, if they were to catch fire and go the distance.
“Make sure you bring a lot of clean underwear and that’s about it. Just ready to play hockey, that’s all that really matters. We’re going to play hockey, that’s why we’re doing it. That’s what we love to do. All the rest is just white noise,” said Scheifele.
No doubt there were some difficult goodbyes on Sunday morning as players parted ways with their families, who won’t be allowed inside the bubble until the conference finals begin in mid-September.
“I’ve been home for three-and-a-half months. There have been four times in my career that my wife has packed for me and this is one of them. She’s ready. I will not be allowed to be late (Sunday), let’s just put it that way,” Maurice joked.
Before they boarded the charter for the two-hour flight west, the Jets held one more skate at Iceplex. It was not open to media, but the team disclosed that both Nikolaj Ehlers and Jansen Harkins skated with the main group after being absent on Saturday.
Winnipeg brought 33 skaters to camp, but could only include 31 on their post-season roster. Forward C.J. Suess and defencemen Logan Stanley and Nelson Nogier, all regulars with the Manitoba Moose, were left behind on Sunday. Goaltender Mikhail Berdin was a last-minute addition.
That means the club has 17 forwards, 10 defencemen and four netminders in the fold right now. Changes can only be made going forward if injuries or illness require it, and any player who is added to the roster would first have to quarantine for a week and test negative on three COVID-19 tests in that span to be allowed into the bubble.
Teams were also allowed to bring a maximum of 20 coaches, management and support staff to the hub, for a total of 51 members.
“We’re getting there, we’re real close. Training camp has been high speed, it’s been high pace, we’ve been competing with each other, scrimmages have been going pretty good. We’ve got a couple days until the exhibition game and then we’re good to go,” said defenceman Neal Pionk.
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