The sounds of hockey again echoed throughout an otherwise quiet MedStar Capitals Iceplex on Monday, from the ping of a puck hitting the crossbar to the whoosh of skates cutting into a fresh sheet of ice to the booms of sticks banging against the boards.
“I think we’re just lucky that we can play hockey again,” center Nicklas Backstrom said.
The NHL is doing all it can to resume play as safely as possible, ensuring that precautions are taken both on the ice and off. But as winger Tom Wilson said Monday, “Everyone is just kind of writing the playbook as you go.”
Wilson, the Capitals’ representative on the NHL Players Association executive board, said the union and the league worked hard during return-to-play and collective bargaining agreement negotiations that wrapped up successfully late last week.
“At the end of the day, the future was very uncertain, and I think both sides needed to come to an agreement to figure out what the future was going to look like from a business perspective, from a sport perspective,” he said.
The opening of training camp is the NHL’s next step. After the 24 teams still competing this season hold two weeks of camp, each will take a charter plane July 26 to Toronto (Eastern Conference teams) or Edmonton (Western Conference). Each team will play an exhibition game between July 28 and 30, and then the Stanley Cup playoff qualifiers and a round-robin seeding schedule will start Aug. 1.
The Capitals, who are bound for Toronto and will compete in the round-robin competition, are allowed to bring a maximum of 31 players. On Monday, Washington had all but three of the players on its training camp roster participate. Backup goaltender Ilya Samsonov, defenseman Michal Kempny and defensive prospect Alex Alexeyev were absent, and the team disclosed no details.
For the rest of this season, teams are not allowed to share player injury and/or illness information, the league and the NHLPA announced last week, “out of respect for an individual player’s right to medical privacy.” However, players can choose to unveil the details themselves. Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews told reporters he tested positive for the coronavirus during the league’s pause but said it did not affect his training.
The Pittsburgh Penguins announced they are voluntarily sidelining nine players from training camp because of potential secondary exposure to an individual who had contact with a person who tested positive. The team said it learned of the possible secondary exposure Sunday.
The NHL announced Monday that, leaguewide, 43 players tested positive from June 8 through the end of voluntary workouts (Phase 2 of the league’s return). In that span, more than 600 players reported to team facilities. Among those 600, there were 4,934 tests administered, and they resulted in 30 confirmed positives. The NHL said it was aware of 13 other players who tested positive separately.
In Washington, aside from the three absent players, the first day of training camp went as expected. One group of 16 players hit the ice in the morning, and a second group practiced nearly three hours later. Coach Todd Reirden said the first group was mostly players who were able to practice in small groups for a significant amount of time during the pause, while the second had more players who more recently got out of isolation. No Capitals players opted out of the return to competition; Monday was the deadline to do so.
Captain Alex Ovechkin, who spoke with reporters for the first time since late March, said it wasn’t “even a question to skip [the rest of the season] or play.” He said he missed the game and knew his wife, Nastya, would support his decision. Ovechkin has two young boys, Sergei and Ilya, the latter of whom was born in May. Ovechkin added that, on the ice, everything seemed back to normal — same with the conversations off it.
“Obviously we’re talking about we have to be safe, but everything seems fine,” he said. “Nobody’s worried about it; nobody’s talking about it.”
Ovechkin said he thinks he is in “pretty good shape right now, and it’s just a matter of time to feel the puck and all those kind of little things.” As he said before the pause, he feels confident in the group’s ability to chase down the Stanley Cup again, and he is leaning on the roster’s experience to carry the Capitals through an unconventional postseason.
“It’s a very exciting time,” Ovechkin said. “Obviously everybody misses hockey, everybody misses spending time together. Right now this is a very good time for us. We can’t wait when we go to play hockey together, spend time together. It’s a good month.”
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