BRIGHTON, Mass. — Now that the Bruins are back practicing together as a group after the first day of Phase 3 training camp, the biggest challenge still waits patiently in front of them.
Quite frankly, it sits in front of the entire NHL as the league attempts to get 24 teams through a two-week training camp, a week of practices in a hub city and then several months of playoff games without enduring any back-breaking COVID-19 outbreaks along the way.
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It’s certainly not going to be easy, as we saw on Monday as more than a handful of Penguins players were kept off the ice in Pittsburgh due to secondary exposure with somebody who ended up testing positive for COVID-19.
We’ve also seen in Major League Baseball where the demand for testing has already overwhelmed the private labs that MLB hired out to provide them with an essential element of returning to play.
Over the weekend Don Sweeney said that he fully expects the Bruins to be forced into navigating through positive cases in the future, even if the internal belief among the Black and Gold is that the one and only COVID-19 positive Bruins player to this point was a false positive result rather than the real thing.
“Individual positive tests are going to happen and we have to act accordingly,” said Sweeney. “It’s going to be a real test for our group, but I think our group is really strong in that regard. We can lean on resources and tap into people that they do during the year, and really go through these things as a group. Team structure is going to be really important.”
If any pro sports league in North America has a shot at getting through it over the next six months it’s got to be the NHL, which has a thorough set of safety protocols, a group of 700-plus players who are fully on board after voting by an 80-20 margin to return to play, and a plan to take the game up to Toronto and Edmonton, where the COVID-19 outbreaks have been contained. All of these add up to the essential things that are needed for a successful return to play.
Still, it’s going to take a full buy-in from NHL players and personnel to persevere all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in October. The NHL released numbers on Monday that 30 out of 600 players had tested positive in Phase 2 (5 percent) and 43 of the roughly 720 players worldwide tested positive over the last few months.
It's fairly encouraging considering there were no restrictions on off-ice activity for players during Phase 2 and that there was zero growth in positive cases when the NHL upped the allowed player participation numbers from six to 12 players a couple of weeks ago. But it still means there is going to need to be buy-in across the NHL where each team will only be as strong as their weakest links in terms of players.
The bottom line: The NHL's Return to Play means getting all players on-board in terms of behavior and being both safe and smart away from the rink no matter what their personality, maturity level or beliefs about the very real dangers posed by COVID-19.
It seems like just a few years ago that the Bruins reportedly needed a security guard outside Tyler Seguin’s hotel room during the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs to make sure the youngster wasn’t sneaking out at night. That kind of thing absolutely can’t happen over the next few months and the players all seem to understand the gravity of the situation.
The Bruins, in particular, are uniquely poised as example-setters given their strong veteran leadership group headed by Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara, so it’s no surprise the message sent to the rest of the team was a strong, resonant one.
“Professionalism is going to be huge. We need to rely on everyone for this thing to happen and for this to work. We're not going to babysit [guys] on their whereabouts and whatnot, so it's about trusting one another to do the right thing and being committed to this thing to work and to go forward,” said Bergeron. “I think that’s the most important thing is to be professionals about it. Be smart and use common sense.”
Honestly, every NHL team would probably feel a lot better about their chances of keeping things together from start to finish this hockey postseason if they had somebody like No. 37 doling out the wisdom inside the dressing room. It will be particularly difficult once the Bruins settle into the Toronto hub city without their families for most of August and September. The challenge there will be to steer clear of any risky behavior once boredom sets in, when a few positive cases could end up shutting the entire operation down.
Using good judgment was part of the message passed down from Bruce Cassidy to the players on Monday prior to getting on the ice. The Bruins coaches practiced what they preached by donning masks for the entirety of practice and the B’s players did the same by wearing masks inside the dressing room before getting out on the ice.
Let’s hope every other NHL team does the same thing across the league.
“I addressed the guys. My message is that I’m not looking at this as training camp. I’m looking at this as ‘Return to Play camp’ or ‘Return to Play’ practices. To me training camp is a different mentality where it’s the beginning of a long marathon,” said Bruce Cassidy. “This isn’t that case. This is the beginning of a quick return comparable to a sprint and that’s the way we want to look at it. The timing and execution of our practices needs to get up there as quickly as possible. That needs to be our focus every day.
"We have a group of hard-working guys. The conditioning part is something you normally monitor during camp and make sure guys are where they need to be. We need to find our game in a hurry. That was my message. Our health coordinator, our medical staff and Donnie [Sweeney] talked to our guys a bit in terms of the procedure. I think they’re getting used to it a bit. They’ve seen it now recently.
And the last message was about being responsible away from the rink. It’s not just you that you could [impact]. In essence, you could affect up to 40 or 50 guys, so let’s do our best to social distance and wear our masks when we need to be out. Try to limit contact. That was it and let’s get back to work.
Those are the kinds of messages that should have been passed around in each of the 24 dressing rooms on Monday morning ahead of “Return to Play” camp.
The Bruins had a feel-good moment on Monday while finally getting back out on the ice together for the first time in four months. They hope to experience a few more of those along the way, obviously. The really good news is that the Bruins sound like they are ready to do everything humanly possible to see this NHL season through to the very end as safely as possible.
Doing that will be almost as satisfying as winning the Cup. Right, Bruins fans?