Ready or not, here they come.
It’s not often the first two questions asked of a hockey player in mid-July are: “How was the first day or training camp?” And: “How ready are you for your first-round playoff series in two weeks?”
But these are strange times we’re living in, so the Edmonton Oilers have no choice but to do what the rest of planet Earth is doing — find a way to survive in the new normal.
“It’s not just athletes, it’s the whole world, everybody in the world is out of their comfort zone right now,” said Oilers winger Zack Kassian, after Day 1 of Phase 3 in the NHL’s return-to-play strategy. “It’s not normal by any means.”
No it is not. But all of the players on the ice at Rogers Place on Monday seem more excited about the opportunity than concerned about the drawbacks, hurdles and potential risks involved with returning to action in the middle of a pandemic.
“You don’t know how it’s going to go, but everybody was excited to get back, coaches included,” said Oilers head coach Dave Tippett, who ran a 40-minute practice followed by a flood and a scrimmage Monday.
“I was very, very pleased with Day 1 — the motivation and enthusiasm and their ability to get out there and get to work with a smile on your face.
“We have to go from a long break to playoff speed in a couple of weeks, but I think we have a very motivated team, a team that’s anxious to get back.”
It showed. There was some rust after the four months and two days since the last time they stepped on the ice as a team, but that’s to be expected when they stop your season in the middle of the stretch drive and then re-start it again in a wildly different landscape.
“Obviously, these are unprecedented times,” said forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “Nobody has been through this before, so it definitely was weird.
“It’s crazy times. We’re all just kind of going wth it. We’re doing the best that we can here. We want to get back playing.
“The players agreed to do this and now that we’re here we want to make the most of it.”
Things are different now, as players enter this crucial two-week stretch. They must prepare themselves physically for a play-in series, and mentally for what awaits them inside the NHL’s quarantine bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto.
That means avoiding as much human contact as possible while gearing up for what could amount to two months of isolation.
Like we said, it’s weird.
“We have to be smart before heading into the bubble and limit ourselves from the outside world so we’re not bringing it inside the bubble,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “We want to be safe, but we want to go as far as we can and it’s going to start with that play-in series.”
Connor McDavid, who’s been ready for this challenge since the NHL first hit pause.
“It’s more the off-ice stuff, wearing masks, keeping our distance, taking our temperature, all the stuff we’re doing to stay safe that isn’t normally in our day to day,” said captan
“Like the rest of the world it’s been a lot of unknowns, but I always kind of thought that something would get done and we’d end up playing. I still remain hopeful that we will and today was a big step toward that.”
Is there concern? Players around the NHL and in other sports have tested positive in the last couple of weeks, and entire Major League Soccer teams have been shut down because of outbreaks.
But the Oilers believe that once inside the bubble, they will be among the safest people in the country. And if they stick to the guidelines laid out for them during training camp, they’re confident they’ll be safe there, too.
“It’s certainly a concern,” Tippett said of the COVID-19 threat. “But I think the league has done a great job of trying to make sure that we’re prepared for everything. Our training staff and doctors have been very thorough in everything they’re doing.
“You put your confidence in those people that we’re doing the right things. It’s a different world we’re living in, the things we have to do to make sure we’re staying healthy, but I think our group has done a great job.”
Kassian says in the grand scheme of things, hockey players still have it very, very good — so they should look at this like it’s an adventure.
“The whole world is trying to find their way right now,” he said. “As hockey players, I consider us pretty lucky that all we have to do is come to the rink.
“The bubble situation is new for all of us and you have to make the most of it because at the end of the day, you only have so many kicks at the can to win the Stanley Cup.
On Twitter: @Rob_Tychkowski