Nick Foligno

NHL post-quarantine: Recapturing team chemistry a challenge

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Claude Giroux’s Philadelphia Flyers were the hottest team in the NHL back when hockey was still being played.

That was more than two months ago and their next game could be two more months away. He can’t predict how things might go if the season resumes.

“I don’t know,” Giroux said. “Right now, everything’s unknown.”

Among the unknowns about the NHL returning amid the coronavirus pandemic is what the on-ice product might look like. In a team sport that demands rhythm and chemistry, players will have to quickly adapt after so much time apart to recapture what it takes to jump right into the playoffs and compete for the Stanley Cup.

“We want to see great hockey played,” Toronto captain John Tavares said. “It’s not an exact science. It’s something we’ve never dealt with before, and we want to make the best and most conscious decision we possibly can to obviously make sure not only guys stay safe, but that the quality of hockey is extremely high.”

Unlike basketball, where one player can dominate a game and carry a team, hockey is predicated on players being in sync, knowing where teammates are — and will be going next — for tape-to-tape passes. Timing as a unit is an essential ingredient to success, and it’s that timing that could be missing early because of so much time off the ice.

With the exception of a handful of players who were rehabbing injuries, living in Sweden or somehow able to find an open rink, most haven’t skated since the season was halted in mid-March. Recapturing that skating stride and building back up to avoid injuries will be a big part of voluntary workouts before the anticipated start of training camps in July.

Some players have expressed concerns about their individual game skills, like Winnipeg winger Patrik Laine expecting himself to be “terrible” after so much time off. Many goaltenders don’t even have their gear with them, and getting back into a groove will take some time.

Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang thinks informal workouts limited to six players on the ice at a given time should be about all that and building up conditioning levels. He sees training camp as the time for coaches and players to do some team rebuilding.

“The skating and everything comes back pretty quick,” Columbus captain Nick Foligno said. “It’s the team mindset, the system play again, where you need to be — that feel. That’s the only stuff you can really get when you’re doing the reps over and over and over again.”

Knowing full well he won’t have a month to work with players before games resume, Edmonton coach Dave Tippett dug up his notes from the abbreviated training camp he oversaw with the Coyotes going into the 2013 lockout-shortened season.

“It’s different because you know the players already,” Tippett said. “It’ll be a little bit like the start of a season where you’ve got to get up and going pretty quick.”

Absent the usual drills to practice rushes, the power play or penalty kill for months, players will have no choice but to acclimate to each other quickly. Washington general manager Brian MacLellan said he isn’t worried.

“I think players adapt,” MacLellan said. “Timing and speed and systems play usually takes a few weeks. It’s no different than a training camp coming in, except it’ll be ramped up – the intensity part – quicker. I think players will adapt to it. I think might be scrambly at first, but it’ll be accelerated because of the seriousness and what’s at stake if you’re playing for a championship.”

Even though teams are expected to play a couple of exhibitions before games that count, rediscovering chemistry quickly could make all the difference, especially for those in best-of-five qualifying round series to get to the final 16.

“We’re going to have to find a way to feel good but also get to our team game, get the fundamentals down that way again,” said Foligno, whose Blue Jackets would play Tavares’ Maple Leafs. “The team that can get to their game quickest is going to have success.”

Florida GM Dale Tallon considers it a benefit to have all teams on a level playing field going into a 24-team playoff. But the newness of the situation adds a layer of unpredictability and could make this one of the most competitive chases for the Stanley Cup in history.

“There’s going to be some teams that are going to disappoint because they lost their momentum, there could be injuries in the training camp period of time if we rush too fast to get these guys up to speed,” Nashville GM David Poile said. “It’s going to be like nothing we’ve done before.”

NHL plans to test players for COVID-19 daily if games resume

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Nick Foligno watches Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s coronavirus briefings and appreciates the value of the information.

It is part of the reason the Columbus captain supports NHL players undergoing daily testing if the season resumes.

“Testing is a must because it’s the only way you’re going to know and feel confident every time you step on the ice that everyone is in the same boat as you and you can play the game to the best of your ability,” Foligno said.

The first major North American professional sports league to announce a format for its potential return to competition also has a comprehensive COVID-19 testing strategy. There are screening protocols in place for voluntary workouts and training camp in the hands of individual teams. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly also said the NHL plans to test all players every day when games start happening.

“We will have a rigorous daily testing protocol where players are tested every evening and those results are obtained before they would leave their hotel rooms the next morning, so we’ll know if we have a positive test and whether the player has to self-quarantine himself as a result of that positive test,” Daly said. “It’s expensive, but we think it’s really a foundational element of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Each test costs approximately $125, the league says, and Commissioner Gary Bettman estimated 25,000-35,000 will be needed to get through the playoffs — a price tag, he concedes, of “millions of dollars.” But athletes have plenty of concerns about risking their health to get back to work, and regular testing is something players insisted on.

“You need testing at a level sufficient to be confident that you’re going to be on top of anything which might happen,” NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr said. “If that turns out to be daily, and that’s available, that’s OK. That would be good. If it turns out that that’s not quite what we need and we can get by with a little less, that’s OK.”

Infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security isn’t quite sure how often athletes should be tested to ensure they are virus-free. He said testing in German soccer will help other leagues determine the right frequency, which also depends on the type of quarantine and exposure risks players will have.

“We do know that people that have increased contact with each other are going to have more opportunity to spread the virus, and hockey is one of the sports where individuals do have a lot of contact with each other,” Adalja said. “I would say that they’re going to have to be more aggressive than other leagues in terms of testing.”

While players vary on their general concern about contracting the virus by resuming the season, many seem to be on board with frequent testing.

“Having it each and every day begins to limit the potential of getting the virus,” Edmonton player representative Darnell Nurse said. “If that’s what it takes, that’s what the professionals who are in this field and tackle these challenges each and every day, if that’s what they believe is the best option, then that’s the way you have to go.”

Teammate Connor McDavid and Toronto captain John Tavares, who are members of the NHL/NHLPA Return to Play committee, deferred to experts on how often players should be tested. McDavid added, “I think you have to get tested in a time like this, and you want to get tested as frequently as you can to catch it right away.”

Daly said one person testing positive for the coronavirus would not necessarily mean another pause for the NHL. Leaguewide testing done daily would allow the isolation of an infected player, coach or staff member before the start of an outbreak.

“If one guy tests positive, I see it as unlikely that other guys don’t test positive, but in assessing everybody I have to believe that they’ll probably find it,” Montreal player rep Paul Byron said. “What would happen if half your team or four or five or six guys test positive at one time?”

League and team officials have stressed they would only use thousands of tests if that number does not endanger the supply for the general public, a concern Adalja broached for all sports. Bettman said medical experts told the NHL that by the time games could resume this summer, 25,000-30,000 would be “a relatively insignificant number.”

Adalja said a league partnering with a national chain for testing could keep it from interfering with the public supply, though it is difficult to predict what availability will be like in late summer. He also said the cost and availability depends on whether the NHL would use more expensive but more reliable PCR tests — the nose swabs — or rapid antigen tests that can have less sensitivity.

Protocols for voluntary workouts and training camps require PCR testing where available, and Daly said the NHL continues to study the potential use of antigen testing.

Part of the decision on which cities host games is the amount of COVID-19 present in the community. Bettman hopes the combination of going to a place with less of it, testing frequently and putting players in a quarantine “bubble” of sorts means it’s less likely for anyone to contract it.

The players putting faith in the league to keep them healthy hope that turns out to be correct.

“Staying on top of everyone is going to be a good challenge for our training staff, and the onus on the players in making sure everyone’s safe,” Carolina captain Jordan Staal said. “It’s going to be different. It’s going to be some interesting hurdles but hopefully if we get back on the ice, I’m sure the guys will find a way to jump through them.”

No ice, big problem: Nothing mimics skating for NHL players

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Taking ice away from NHL players has caused some to resort to desperate measures.

New York Islanders captain Anders Lee bought a Peloton. Anaheim defenseman Josh Manson wants a pair of roller blades. League leading scorer Leon Draisaitl of Edmonton stickhandles around his dog.

Whatever works.

”You’re kind of going back to that ‘Rocky’ mentality where you’re doing push-ups and sit-ups and punching the cow,” Columbus forward Nick Foligno said.

NHL players are running, biking and trying to stay in shape in case the season resumes after being put on pause because of the coronavirus pandemic. While many athletes can replicate the workouts and movement of their sports – NBA players are missing the gym – hockey players have no way to truly replace skating while rinks are closed.

”I don’t think too many people have access to rinks or anything like that, and that’s a huge hurdle for a player,” Washington defenseman John Carlson said. ”It doesn’t matter how hard you train, the on-ice stuff is different and we’re going to have to pick it up pretty quick when things turn around here.”

While there remains plenty of uncertainty over whether the NHL will play again this season, players are proceeding as though they will. Aside from a few exceptions, most haven’t skated since before play stopped March 12, and self-quarantine guidelines will keep them off the ice for at least another week and likely longer.

This is nowhere near normal for athletes used to spending the spring gearing up for the intensity and brutal grind of the NHL playoffs.

”I can just do my workouts and just try to stick as close to a routine as you can,” New Jersey defenseman P.K. Subban said. ”It’s hard because you’re anticipating the season coming back, but at the same token it’s so much time. And when you’re not skating, there’s nothing you can do that’s going to mimic skating.”

Little things have to fill the void for now. Team trainers are sending out customized plans to players with home gym setups. Running has replaced practicing. Biking might be the only way to simulate the high intensity of a shift – sort of.

”That all helps and it’s great, but there’s absolutely nothing you can do to prepare for the ins and outs of a shift and the physicality of it,” Boston defenseman Torey Krug said. ”Not only are you trying to mimic the skating motion, but there’s no way you can train for going into the corner with a guy who’s 6-foot-2, 210 pounds and trying to out-battle him and get the puck and skate away from him.”

Draisaitl’s Edmonton teammate Connor McDavid is staying strong by lifting his dog, Lenny, and Lee takes his dogs for a run to keep his heart rate up. Philadelphia’s Scott Laughton does yoga with his girlfriend on occasion, which is one way to keep his mind and body sharp.

Manson said he doesn’t want to risk going to a store to get roller blades. Anaheim teammate Hampus Lindholm has taken his blades for a spin or two during quarantine, but he and others around the league are quick to point out it doesn’t require the same balance or train the same muscles as ice skating.

”You don’t get the buildup of lactic acid and having to deal with your groins and your hip motion when you’re digging into the ice and trying to stop and start, and that’s a big part of it,” Krug said.

Minnesota’s Zach Parise tries to stay sharp playing 1-on-1 in the basement with his 6-year-old son, Jax. He also bought a bike because he is not much of a runner.

Resigned to life off the ice for some time, players – especially those with young families – are typically getting workouts done early in the day like it’s a morning skate. There are no games to prepare for at night, but they know there will be at some point.

”You just try to do what you can, make it fun,” Foligno said. ”It’s our job. We’re pros and athletes for a reason, so it’s something we have to make sure we continue to do and be ready if called upon.”

Uncertainty awaits as NHL puts season on ice — for now

Michael Peca knows all about NHL work stoppages.

The two-time Frank Selke Award-winning forward endured two lockouts and lost another season due to a contract dispute with the Buffalo Sabres during his 14-year career, which ended with Columbus in 2009.

Never could Peca have imagined a season – never mind essentially the entire North American sports schedule – being placed in limbo because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s weird because nothing like this has ever happened, and it’ll probably never happen again, hopefully,” Peca said Thursday, when the NHL joined numerous pro sports leagues in suspending its season.

“It’s like, `Is this even real?’” he added. “But there’s a big-picture purpose to it. … It’s about making sure we can slow down if not cease, but more likely slow down how quickly it’s spreading.”

The NHL placed the final month of its season on ice – for now – but hopes to eventually resume play and still award the Stanley Cup.

Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league followed the NBA’s lead after Utah Jazz players Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell tested positive for COVID-19.

With the two leagues sharing numerous facilities and locker rooms across North America, Bettman said: “It now seems likely that some member of the NHL community would test positive at some point — it is no longer appropriate to try to continue to play games at this time.”

The NHL Players’ Association backed the decision, calling it “an appropriate course of action.”

The decision left numerous unanswered questions, ranging from when games might resume to what shape players might be in once they return. The stoppage also raised concerns over what the economic impact might be on the bottom line in the league’s 31 markets.

As Nashville Predators president Sean Henry put it: “We’re working through really uncharted territory.”

Henry wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the season not resuming.

“I think there’s a fear for all of us of that,” he added. “We all want answers. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of them.”

There have only been two years in which the Stanley Cup wasn’t awarded since 1893. It happened in 1919, when the final was canceled after five games because of the Spanish flu outbreak, and then again in 2005, when an NHL lockout wiped out the entire season.

Though disappointed, players understood the reasoning.

“Nothing is more important than everyone’s health and safety. The league did the right thing today,” Columbus Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno wrote in a post on his Twitter account. “We have the best fans in the world, and we’ll get through this together.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.

While players will continue to be paid, they won’t be allowed to practice together for at least the short term, the Predators’ Henry said.

The NHL has not said any player has tested positive for COVID-19. The Washington Capitals, who used the same visiting locker room as the Jazz at New York’s Madison Square Garden, said they will closely monitor the health of players, coaches and staff.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, who followed the Jazz into two arenas last weekend and occupied the same locker room while in Boston, said deep cleaning and sanitizing was done before they arrived.

In Dallas, Stars forward Alexander Radulov has been sick, but team president Brad Alberts said no players had yet been tested.

Alberts said he’s encouraged a majority of employees to work from home. Players have also been encouraged to quarantine themselves in the event they might have contracted the virus.

Retired NHL forward and Minnesota Wild assistant director of player development Matt Hendricks noted how different this hiatus is to past stoppages.

“This is kind of no-man’s territory,” Hendricks said.

“When we were locked out, we had the ability to go and skate and train,” he said. “But this one’s a little bit different in the sense that you really don’t want to expose yourself if you don’t have to. … So going into public gyms that might not be the best thing to do to put yourself at risk and put others at risk.”

In Buffalo, former Sabres and Wild forward Jason Pominville said it can’t be easy for players to stop competing a month before the playoffs were scheduled to begin..

“They just want to play, they’re in a rhythm, not a lot of practices, playing a lot of games and then, all of a sudden, it’s shut down for who knows how long,” said Pominville, who hasn’t filed his retirement papers since completing his 15th NHL season last year.

He’s spent this season playing in a local beer league. Upon learning of the NHL pausing its season, Pominville playfully reached out to former Sabres teammate, Kyle Okposo.

“I was like, `Hey bud, if you or any of the boys are looking to skate, my beer league’s not canceled yet, and you guys are welcome,’” Pominville said, laughing. “We’re always looking to get better.”

Blue Jackets plan on having home games with fans despite coronavirus fears

Blue Jackets keeping home games despite threat of coronavirus
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The Blue Jackets seem poised to play upcoming home games in front of fans despite Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s suggestions to avoid the spread of coronavirus.

Update: Governor DeWine announced that the suggestion will turn into an order.

Blue Jackets reject governor’s suggestion, at least for now

The Blue Jackets shared their current plan in this lengthy, somewhat eyebrow-raising statement:

The Columbus Blue Jackets are aware of the recommendation by Governor DeWine that events at indoor sports and entertainment facilities be conducted without spectators. We have been in contact with the National Hockey League and, given the facts before us, it has been determined that our scheduled games, including this Thursday vs. Pittsburgh and Saturday vs. Nashville, will go on as scheduled and be open to ticketed fans that wish to attend.

Our club, the NHL and Nationwide Arena have been monitoring Coronavirus COVID-19 very closely. The NHL has been in regular communication with the Center for Disease Control, Public Health Canada, numerous medical advisors and other leagues and we are committed to the health and safety of our players, staff and fans. To that end, guests should adhere to recommendations that suggest persons at higher risk, including elderly individuals and those with currently compromised health issues or who are feeling ill, avoid large-scale public events.

Nationwide Arena has protocols in place to enhance procedures to fight the spread of viruses as they arise. In the case of COVID-19, additional steps have been taken that include an expanded, detailed cleaning throughout all areas of the arena and an increase in the number of hand sanitizer dispensers available to all. We also encourage guests to continue to practice routine hygiene etiquette as the best way to prevent the spread of viruses.

The club, League and Nationwide Arena will continue to closely monitor the situation as it evolves. It remains very fluid and any additional information or changes will be communicated at the appropriate time.

As the Blue Jackets mentioned in their statement, their upcoming home games include Thursday’s contest against the Penguins, and then Saturday’s match with the Predators.

A “fluid situation”

DeWine laid out his suggestions on Twitter, including this specific bit about sporting events (or “athletics”).

DeWine extended that suggestion to high school sports (OHSAA) and the Cleveland Cavaliers, as well. The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline confirms (sub required) that the OHSAA is accepting DeWine’s regulation, and Portzline also backs up the note in the Blue Jackets’ statement that this is a “fluid situation.”

(For one thing, DeWine could ramp up that “suggestion” to more of an edict. One can see that escalation happen regarding the Sharks, who are pondering answers following Santa Clara County making the call.)

Portzline also shared this … interesting quote from Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno.

“I don’t want to be ignorant about people who have dealt with (COVID-19),” Foligno said, “but I’ve read up on it and talked to my wife about it, and if you take the necessary precautions you should be all right. If you live in fear, it’s not a good way to live life.”

Personally, I can’t help but wonder if there’s some natural fear of … you know, being sued. Portzline and others seem to bring up that thought, too.

Five home games remaining for Blue Jackets in regular season

Perhaps that’s part of the Blue Jackets approaching dealing with coronavirus fears as a “fluid situation?” Will there be virus-related fine print on every ticket? A waiver next to hand sanitizer dispensers?

Maybe the Blue Jackets simply believe they can get through these games, just barely. They only play five more home games in the 2019-20 regular season: March 12, 14, 19, 30, and finally April 2. It’s conceivable that the Blue Jackets could thread the needle by not having to eat the money from playing in front of empty arenas or at neutral locations.

For all we know, Governor DeWine might take away any choice in this matter. For now, though, it looks like the Blue Jackets are politely disagreeing with DeWine’s coronavirus-related warning, and will go ahead with home games as planned.

Ohio sports fans … I’d stay home if I had the option. Just saying.

MORE ON THE RIPPLE EFFECTS OF THE CORONAVIRUS FOR HOCKEY EVENTS

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.