DETROIT — New year. Fresh ice. First practice. The door clanked open at 9:45 a.m. ET on Friday at the BELFOR Training Center inside Little Caesars Arena, and out skated goalie Jonathan Bernier. Soon the rest of the Detroit Red Wings followed, filling the air with the old familiar hockey sounds of scrapes, slaps and smacks.
The players had been skating for days, weeks and months in some form or fashion, from European professional leagues to local informal workouts, waiting for the 2020-21 NHL season to start. Now, finally, on New Year’s Day, they were back together again in training camp, rusty but ready.
“It’s nice to be back to work,” said forward Bobby Ryan, who signed with the Red Wings as an unrestricted free agent Oct. 9 and has been working out with some of his new teammates in the Detroit area since Nov. 1. “We’ve been playing 3-on-3 for so long it feels like we were a little lost in a few of the drills a little early on, but we got to it pretty quickly. Yeah, overall, great feeling.”
Among the NHL’s 31 teams, 2020 was toughest on seven in particular: the Red Wings, Anaheim Ducks, Buffalo Sabres, Los Angeles Kings, Ottawa Senators, New Jersey Devils and San Jose Sharks.
They were at the bottom of the NHL standings when the 2019-20 season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus and not part of the 24-team tournament the NHL and NHL Players’ Association crafted in the Return to Play Plan.
Not only did they have to watch the other teams play in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers and Stanley Cup Playoffs from Aug. 1-Sept. 28, they weren’t sure when they were going to play again.
In the end, they will have waited about 10 months.
They were permitted to open camp Thursday; the rest of the teams can open camp Sunday. There will be no preseason before the regular season starts Jan. 13. Each team will play 56 games against division opponents in a realigned league, with the top four teams in each division qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“I think just for all of us, it’s just exciting to have a date where we know that we can play hockey again,” Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler said after Anaheim’s first practice Thursday. “I think there’s kind of that buzz around here that we’re all working towards something, towards the start of the season. That was the hardest thing in the last couple months, was [to] continue to work hard and train but not know exactly what you’re doing that for.”
Devils forward Kyle Palmieri is entering his 11th season in the NHL. He said there is always a lot of excitement and anxiety on the first day of camp, but this time there was more than usual.
“That was a long layoff, and being out there to go out and compete and practice, we all missed it,” Palmieri said after New Jersey’s first practice Friday. “The energy was high. Guys were excited to be there.”
The Sabres pulled back the stands behind one of the goals at KeyBank Center on Friday, and they set up three video screens and spread out chairs on the arena floor to create a socially distanced meeting area.
“We really targeted professionalism and ‘get right to work,’ so our first meeting at 10 o’clock in the end zone, our new end zone, really, really gave us a feeling of unbelievable focus from the group,” Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said. “That’s what the guys want to do. They’ve had enough relaxed time. They’ve had enough easy practices. They want to go to work.”
No time to waste, especially for teams that have made significant changes like the Red Wings and Senators, who finished 31st and 30th in the NHL last season, respectively.
“You’re trying to touch on everything, and you have so many new bodies, so with no exhibition games you’ve really got to use these practices to work on your systems and faceoffs,” Senators coach D.J. Smith said Friday. “There’s so many little things that go into it.”
Three days might not be much, but these teams will take the head start.
Kings coach Todd McLellan said he was in the way half the time during Los Angeles’ first practice on Thursday because he hadn’t been on the ice in so long. Kings forward Dustin Brown said he was huffing and puffing.
“You have all the training, all the skates, all the stuff you do prior to camp, and then in the first 15 minutes, when you have a guy lean on you, you can barely breathe,” Brown said.
Imagine what it will feel like once the games start in less than two weeks.
“This break has given me a newfound appreciation to really enjoy the journey of it,” Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said. “You want things to be exactly right, and you still keep your focus ultra-high. But let’s enjoy it, and let’s enjoy trying to help these guys get better as individuals and as a team.”
NHL.com staff writers Tom Gulitti, Tracey Myers and Mike Zeisberger contributed.
Photos courtesy of Detroit Red Wings