Neither the PlayStation that Joonas Korpisalo brings on the road nor the Xbox that Eric Robinson typically stows away when he leaves for prolonged trips have ever mattered much to Nick Foligno in the past. The Columbus Blue Jackets’ captain is 32 years old with a wife and three young kids. He has other stuff on his mind.
For the foreseeable future, however, Foligno – and everybody else participating in the NHL’s postseason – can throw normality out the window.
The Blue Jackets traveled from Columbus to Toronto, moving into the “bubble” created solely for the purpose of playing hockey as safely as possible during a pandemic. Numerous strict rules and regulations have been implemented after they were agreed upon by both the league and the player’s association. The freedom NHL players are used to won’t exist as long as they’re at their respective hub city – Toronto for the Eastern Conference and Edmonton for the Western Conference.
As long as all players are sequestered together, 13-year NHL veterans like Foligno will have to get used to spending time around the 20-somethings who make up Columbus’ team, which is the third-youngest playing in the postseason with an average age of 26.1 years old.
“In this setting, it's actually kind of a blessing in a weird way where I'm spending that time with a 19-year-old or an 18-year-old or a 20-year-old sitting there with the video games and figuring out what they like, whereas normally I'm tied up with my family or things that I've got going on,” Foligno said on Monday. “So it's kind of brought us all to one level here. I think it's helped our group become even closer. It's going to be a great way for me to just have that bond even more with some of these guys. I've really enjoyed it and embraced it, and hopefully we can translate that on the ice.”
During Phase 2 of the NHL’s Return To Play plan, which allowed for teams to open their facilities for voluntary workouts of six or fewer players at a time, Seth Jones felt plenty of uncertainty with what was going on. He said players were “hearing different things every day.” He no longer has that feeling, giving “a lot of props” to both the league and the player’s association.
Now, he and the rest of his teammates are together 24-7, as Cam Atkinson put it.
“For me, I feel like it has the feel of a world championship where you have all the teams kind of in the same vicinity in the hotel,” Atkinson said. “You kind of walk out the elevator and you never know who you're going to run into. It's nice to be around the guys almost 24/7. Ultimately, that bond is so crucial and important for us during this stretch. We have a lot of young guys on the team, so to be around each other a lot is important for us for the morale and whatnot. It's kind of got a cool feel to it, I think.”
The more casual dress code isn’t a bad thing either, Atkinson mentioned – even though they can’t go a ton of different places.
“It honestly feels a little bit more like the playoffs where, yeah, you still have the freedom to go, but a lot of guys just end up sticking around the hotel and kind of finding their way just to the lounges and stuff like that,” Foligno said. “I think that, to me, is where it kind of feels similar, which is great because we're in playoff hockey right now.”
From a player’s perspective, much of this experience is foreign. But as what everybody involved hopes is a one-off event, it also offers them a few opportunities not usually afforded. One of them? The players can attend other teams’ games.
Foligno said that the players have already joked that they’re going to have to figure out how to keep him out of the rinks all day since he’s a “complete hockey nerd.”
“When are you ever really in a position like this to watch world-class players, and especially at this level, the magnitude of the playoffs to be able to go watch?” Foligno said. “I mean, we don't really get to watch live games too often, so I think it's a great opportunity for the guys, myself included.”
Ultimately, though, coaches, players and everybody else congregated in Toronto and Edmonton are there for their own games, beginning with the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
The Blue Jackets open a five-game series with the Maple Leafs on Sunday. They traveled two days ago, had their first practice on Monday afternoon and will practice two more times before an exhibition with the Boston Bruins on Thursday evening.
Initially, coach John Tortorella said, Columbus was “just getting through the first day.” By the second full day in Toronto, he imagined, the team will begin to form a new routine.
“We're pretty routine guys, but we also can go with the flow, and I think you're seeing that out of our group,” Foligno said. “I think it's a great test of mental toughness, too. I mean, what are you choosing to focus yourself on? Our group has stayed real focused on the task at hand, which is trying to win hockey games.”