The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hockey in August isn’t even going to be the weirdest part

Capitals Coach Todd Reirden talks to his team during a team workout at the MedStar Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, Va. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

As the NHL tries to resume play Aug. 1 in Toronto and Edmonton, 24 teams will enter a hockey world unlike any they have known before, with uncertainties that include quality of play, time apart from families, restrictions inside secure zones and, above all, the success of the plan.

The Washington Capitals will head to Toronto on Sunday with 11 other Eastern Conference teams. The 12 teams returning from the Western Conference will go to Edmonton. Players are preparing with a two-week training camp that started July 13 after a four-month layoff precipitated by the novel coronavirus pandemic. After such a long break and amid so many unknowns, the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs seem like even more of an “anyone can win” event than usual.

Teams that thought they were carrying much-needed momentum toward the postseason suddenly saw everything halt when play was paused March 12, and teams that were struggling have been given fresh starts. Injured players were given four months to heal, and certain teams that looked to be out of the postseason picture have been given a chance to play their way in. As Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said recently, the 2020 postseason should be “wildly entertaining.”

“It might not be perfect hockey right out of the gate, but it never really is anyway in our sport,” Capitals winger Tom Wilson said. “There’s lots of bounces and stuff. So everybody’s in a different position around the world. We’re professional hockey players, and our job is to get back and get as ready as we can to play a playoff-type game out of the gate. And we’re prepared in our room. Whether there’s adversity or whatever, we’re ready to try and do that.”

Just six players in the entire league have opted out of participating in the return to play: Calgary’s Travis Hamonic, Edmonton’s Mike Green, Boston’s Steven Kampfer, Montreal’s Karl Alzner, Vancouver’s Sven Baertschi and Dallas’s Roman Polak. But positive coronavirus tests continue to increase across the league, which is releasing numbers weekly. Teams are barred from reporting or commenting on why players are absent from practice to keep the players’ medical information private.

“I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see if there’s going to be more positive tests around the league, maybe even here,” Capitals center Lars Eller said. “I would not be surprised.”

Players are not on a strict lockdown off the ice during training camp, but once teams arrive in their hub cities, they will be staying in a designated secure zone for the length of their postseason run. There are two hotels designated for teams in each of the two hub cities, and hotel rooms have been assigned.

The Capitals will be staying in Hotel X in Toronto with the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins.

Details of life inside the hotel and the secure zone are still being determined. Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said the team isn’t sure of the exact regulations, but he plans to spend a lot of time on FaceTime with his young family. In a typical postseason, players are accustomed to constant travel back and forth from their home cities to their opponents’ cities. But this year, players on teams that advance past the qualifying round will be away from family for at least four weeks. Players on teams that reach the Stanley Cup finals could be away until October.

“For me, it’s going to be a lot of time on FaceTime with the family, and it’s going to suck,” Oshie said. “The worst part about this is not being able to see our families, so hopefully we’re able to just hang out with all the guys in the rooms — if not right away, hopefully down the road. But it’s going to be different; it’s going to be weird. It’s going to kind of feel like you’re a kid again and you can’t drive and you can’t do anything.”

Oshie also joked that the Capitals probably will be partaking in a lot of video games and card games. Some live music also could be arranged.

“Even though a lot of us have kids, we’re still kids at heart,” Oshie said. “So there will be a lot of video games. Typically, we’re a big Mario Kart team, so you kind of get some competition and some fun with that. We definitely have our card players. [Goaltender Braden Holtby] plays the guitar, so I don’t even know if we’re allowed to be in a room yet, but if we could all get in a room and Holts just jams…”

On the ice, the atmosphere also will be a stark change because all games will be played without fans. Wilson, a player who thrives on the positive or negative energy from the crowd, admitted, “It’s going to be extremely weird.”

“I think there will definitely be times when it gets a little bit quiet out there, but I guess we’ll just pretend that we’re playing in a rink that has a little less atmosphere than we’re privileged to have in D.C.,” Wilson said. The winger also noted that, in a quiet arena, the back-and-forth chatter on the ice is bound to be heard.

“I’ll have to watch, I guess, what I’m saying,” Wilson said. “Less F-words and stuff like that.”

Taking into account the unconventional on- and off-ice circumstances that the restart brings, there may be some discussion about whether this year’s Stanley Cup champion is legitimate. The Capitals dismiss that notion.

“I think every player knows, if you’re in this and if you win it, it’s going to feel just as good as winning any other Stanley Cup,” Capitals winger Carl Hagelin said. “It’ll be different. This will probably be the most memorable in that sense — there are a lot of obstacles you’ve got to get through.”