It’s only hockey. Then again, it’s more than hockey.
It’s Jan. 3, 2021, and the NHL is back. The seven teams that didn’t play in the 2020 postseason opened training camp Thursday; the rest open camp Sunday.
The regular season begins in a matter of days, on Jan. 13, when the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins renew their rivalry at Wells Fargo Center to open a five-game slate (5:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN).
The coronavirus pandemic affecting life around the world has not ended. It disrupted the 2019-20 season in unprecedented ways. It will impact this season in many ways too.
But there will be a season, restoring a part of life for all who love the game.
“We’re all going through some real tough times here, from having to stay inside, having to quarantine, not being able to see families during Christmas or during the holidays or respective gatherings that are traditional to everybody,” Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said.
“Hopefully we can provide [people] an opportunity to maybe get some joy and some enjoyment with respect to something that makes them hopefully feel good or hopefully feel passionate about.
“Having sports is more than just, I think, about the wins and the losses. I think it’s about a mental psyche of a community and a mental psyche of a society in a lot of respects.”
Training camp will be even more critical than it is in a normal season.
There are lots of new faces in new places, like defenseman Alex Pietrangelo with the Vegas Golden Knights, forward Joe Thornton with the Toronto Maple Leafs and defenseman Zdeno Chara with the Washington Capitals.
Players and coaches have had limited in-person interaction, relying on text messages, phone calls and video conferences.
Peter Laviolette, hired to coach the Capitals on Sept. 15, said he had to turn down a recent dinner invitation from forward Alex Ovechkin, his captain, because he was quarantining after traveling from his home in Florida to the D.C. area.
“Everyone is excited to get going,” Laviolette said. “Everyone is excited to learn a new system. I’m excited to teach a system that they haven’t seen before and really work on the identity and being able to play in a ferocious way. So, for me, I’m excited to do it. But it has made it a little more challenging.”
There will be little time to develop chemistry and evaluate players on the bubble with less than two weeks of camp and no preseason games, and there will be no time to ease into the season.
Each team will play 56 regular-season games instead of the usual 82. Each will play only division rivals, and the top four teams in each division — realigned for this season as the North, West, Central and East because of travel restrictions — will make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
That means each game will mean even more than usual in a league already defined by parity, and that means everyone better be ready right away.
Teams have scheduled scrimmages in camp to replicate preseason games.
“It’s not like a normal season,” Anaheim Ducks GM Bob Murray said. “This is a sprint. The earlier you can get in front, the better.”
Teams will have to navigate a unique set of challenges, from strict safety and travel protocols to taxi squads and reserve lists.
The NHL is not using bubbles like it did in Toronto and Edmonton for the 2020 postseason, when it had zero positives out of 33,174 COVID-19 tests to team personnel, so teams must make contingency plans for positive tests and close contacts.
That will start in camp, on top of the usual roster decisions.
Who goes on the active roster? Who goes on the taxi squad? Which players should go elsewhere? What are the statuses of other leagues? If a player must be recalled from elsewhere, what are the quarantine requirements? What are the NHL salary cap and waiver implications?
“It’s a real interesting puzzle, kind of neat,” Murray said. “I don’t want [anyone] to take that negatively because of what’s going on in the world. But [you’ve] really got to think, and you have to plan. You know that you have to be ready for hurdles and curveballs and whatever every single day and just not get … Just relax, and we’ll figure it out.”
The hope is the next time training camps open, it will be on schedule in September 2021. The 32 teams — yes, 32, including the expansion Seattle Kraken — will be preparing for an 82-game regular season with the traditional alignment and fans filling the arenas.
In the meantime, enjoy the puzzle. Don’t take a piece for granted.
“It’s been tough,” said Detroit Red Wings forward Anthony Mantha, who hasn’t played a game since March 10. “It’s been long, obviously. But the only positive point that we could take out of it is everyone’s excited to be back at the rink. Everyone’s excited to get going.
“So hopefully we carry that into the season, and we just have fun.”
NHL.com Staff Writers Amalie Benjamin, Tim Campbell and Tom Gulitti contributed to this report