The dire times now feel distant.
Those moments when Nick Foligno didn’t really know whether or not the 2019-20 NHL season would resume or not seem so long ago. Still, however, he remembers the feeling and thoughts in a time he described as “pretty dark for everyone.”
The Columbus Blue Jackets captain now admits he wasn’t even truly worried about hockey. Wasn’t thinking about the goals he might never score or the games he might never win in a season that might never resume.
None of the above.
“I was just worried about life, in general,” Foligno said on Monday. “Like, how are we going to get back to normal in the world?”
Right now, it’s impossible to say that life’s back to normal for most Americans. The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t slowed down much in the United States, with total cases creeping back up in areas, including Ohio.
But for Foligno and the rest of his teammates, one important aspect of their life has begun to return to normalcy. They’re back on the ice.
The Blue Jackets began their postseason pursuit of the Stanley Cup by opening training camp on Monday with an eye toward facing the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Qualifiers in a five-game series beginning Aug. 2. Cam Atkinson said most of the players were getting their sticks taped up an hour and a half before practice began due to their anticipation.
To Foligno, among the other players, it was a breath of fresh air.
“You get on the ice, there's no masks. It's just hockey,” Foligno said. “You're laughing. You're giggling. You're back together as a team. You're working toward the ultimate goal of winning a Cup.”
But it also represented the first moment he had to work together to achieve what he told his children he would before leaving them at home in Canada.
“That was kind of the promise I made to my kids is I'm going to come home with the Cup, so anything less will be a disappointment,” Foligno said. “I'm looking forward to chasing that dream with these guys.”
Nothing about this chase is normal, of course.
All the games will be in hub cities – Toronto and Edmonton – with 52 people allowed from each organization. Players will get tested every other day for the coronavirus, and they won’t be allowed in each other’s hotel rooms. Leaving the “bubble” without a specific, approved reason could be grounds for removal from play. While players won’t be wearing masks while playing games, they’ll have to adhere to strict regulations. All interviews take place virtually, and media personnel isn’t allowed anywhere near players or coaches.
It’s out of everyone’s comfort zone, and it could take some time to adjust to, which requires an ability to thread the needle, in head coach John Tortorella’s mind.
“We're going to go through all the precautions and do it the right way,” Tortorella said. “But there is a point, as I talk to the team today, I don't want this to be a bunch of drama, either, talking about the virus every day. We're going to protect our players. The league is going to protect the league's players. We need to get ready to play hockey also. I think we've got to be really careful in that fine line.”
Typically, Tortorella said, he and his coaching staff prefer to plan far ahead. They’re similar to most coaches in that respect.
Right now, though, he’s only going a week at a time. He knows what the Blue Jackets need to accomplish through Friday before their day off on Saturday, and then he’ll figure out what to do afterward. That type of nimbleness doesn’t necessarily come naturally, but he believes it’ll matter greatly.
“I think it's so important that we're able to be flexible but stay focused,” Tortorella said. “If we have to change something that day, focus on what we have to do. OK, it changed on us 15 minutes ago, these are our marching orders. Let's do it. I think that's so important here.”
Like the rest of the teams, Columbus has only three weeks until it starts playing and two weeks in its home city to go through training camp. As Atkinson points out, they’re “just right into the fire” for a five-game series.
Not much time to take deep breathes and think. No wasted minutes allowed. They’re only a few weeks away from returning to action.
“For now, I think it's just getting back in the groove and really getting our game back,” defenseman David Savard said. “I think today was a good day. Had a lot of skating. I think the guys were pretty crisp. The passes were on the tape and stuff like this, and for now I think the first 2-3 days are going to be just about ourselves, and after we'll kind of get going on looking at what (Toronto’s) doing and stuff.”
No, this isn’t normal. The Blue Jackets’ players and coaches aren’t even bothering to try to convince themselves of such.
But this is an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup, and they’re not willing to let that go lightly.
“The protocols are there for a reason,” Foligno said. “Respect what's going on, but switch gears to the fact that we've got a job to do within this and make sure that that's your main priority and main goal and not letting anyone down. Just because this is an unforeseen circumstance and time doesn't take away the task at hand, which is trying to win a Stanley Cup.”