Time has been on the side of the NHL’s players and coaches. They’ve had four-and-a-half months on the sideline after the league suspended play in response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 12. They’ve known the details of the Return To Play Plan since it was released on May 26.
Yet two days before the Columbus Blue Jackets’ scheduled day of travel to take them to their East Conference hub city of Toronto on Sunday, Markus Nutivaara hadn’t even begun packing.
“I'm going to stress about it tomorrow, I think,” Markus Nutivaara said with a smile after Friday’s practice.
Nutivaara, who bought a house and had his horse start running races during the break, is not alone.
Neither John Tortorella nor any of his players who spoke to the media that day had begun to get themselves packed for the trip. Tortorella said he’s “packing light,” so he wasn’t stressing. Joonas Korpisalo didn’t express any worry since he said he’s basically taking everything he brought back with him to Columbus from Finland, including his PlayStation, which Nutivaara also plans to stow away. Eric Robinson’s bringing along his Xbox.
“I don't know what's going on in the bubble, so got to entertain yourself a little bit,” Korpisalo said.
For all of them, the so-called “bubble” has been discussed at great length for months. They’ve seen other leagues, including the NBA and MLS, begin play at hub cities. They’ve spoken about their thoughts and seen the NHL’s plans about what it’ll look like and how it’ll keep them safe. They’ve done what they can to ready themselves.
Still, however, until they enter Toronto on Sunday, they don’t know what it’ll truly be like.
“I want to experience it,” Tortorella said. “You can talk about it. I don't think we're going to understand exactly what it is until you're right in the middle of it. We've got an off-ice (day) tomorrow. We get on a plane. I'm excited about getting there, just to get into it and starting to experience what it's going to be like.”
The players and coaches in transit have their ideas. Many of them saw a lengthy video on Thursday about what to expect, both as it pertains to life in the bubble and on the ice at Scotiabank Arena.
Korpisalo said he thinks they have a decent handle on what to expect, though Tortorella has been consistent throughout training camp with his point of view that they just won’t know how to handle it until they arrive.
“Nothing can prepare yourself for what we're going to experience here,” Tortorella said. “This is new. It is. You can talk about it. You can listen to the Zoom meetings. And I think the league's done a terrific job in giving us all the information. OK, thank you. But we have to experience it now. I'm looking forward to the opportunity. It's new. It's something that's never been done. And we're fortunate as the Columbus Blue Jackets to be one of those teams that are going to be part of it.”
Columbus had a full intrasquad scrimmage on Friday followed by a day of off-ice work on Saturday. Then, the team travels on Sunday, a week before it faces the Maple Leafs in a best-of-five series.
The Blue Jackets will have three days leading up to a Thursday exhibition with the Boston Bruins followed by two more days before the series with Toronto opens on Aug. 2.
Tortorella said on Friday he wasn’t sure what the practices ahead of the exhibition would look like. Specifically, he didn’t feel certain about whether or not his team would have any scrimmages.
“If the scrimmage is going to be like today, I'm not so sure I want to see another one,” Tortorella said with a laugh.
Either way, his team won’t have to wait long to play another team.
After two weeks of going back and forth with each other, the Blue Jackets are set to take on Boston in a tune-up exhibition a few days after arriving. For Columbus, the opportunity to face someone else especially matters. Cam Atkinson deemed the intrasquad scrimmages over the past two weeks as “pretty sloppy,” and given Tortorella’s comments, that’s a fair characterization.
“I don't know if any scrimmage has been the competitiveness that we need to bring,” Atkinson said.
Before taking the ice versus Toronto, the game versus the Bruins offers one last opportunity to get right.
“I can belly-ache and piss and moan and want these (intrasquad scrimmages) to be dead-on like a game,” Tortorella said. “It's impossible to simulate what it is to play a National Hockey League game against an opponent, not yourselves. It's an important one for our players just to feel it, just to see what the rink's going to be like without people in it with a uniform on playing against a different opponent. It'll be a good experience for us to see what it's actually going to feel like when we do play a game.”
The empty arena. The quarantined bubble.
It’ll all be different.
But if all goes right for the Blue Jackets, once they arrive on Sunday, they’ll be in Toronto for quite some time.
“I'm looking forward to just getting started,” Atkinson said. “I think everyone's ready to just drop the puck and play important games. Just looking forward to getting out there.”