The coronavirus has touched us all in one way or another over the past 15 months of the pandemic. The challenges for professional hockey players were unique, though no less taxing. With the season now over, and players having a chance to reflect, it gave them an opportunity to evaluate just how difficult this season truly was.
"I think it takes its toll a little bit, but I think it probably does that for everybody," T.J. Oshie said.
"I think everyone is ready to stop sitting behind the computer," John Carlson said.
With the pandemic, many of us have had to adjust to working from home. While professional hockey players obviously cannot practice or play from home, the league had to adjust accordingly to maintain the health and safety of its players. That meant a lot of testing.
"You test, you fill out these questionnaires and take all these precautions, wear your masks," Lars Eller said. "I think everybody adjusted pretty well and it became a routine."
"This year was tough just with everything, some of them as small as getting a nose swab every day and twice on game days," Oshie said. "It's just something that you've got to do every morning and there wasn't one day that I didn't have to come to the rink this year either to get tested or for something else. It definitely takes its toll. I know it takes its toll on everyone in the league, all the other players, but it was a different year."
In addition, the players also had to adjust to a lot less face-to-face time with coaches and teammates.
"You’ve got guys sprinkled amongst three separate rooms," Brenden Dillon said. "You’re coming from video sessions being your 20-to-25 guys to now you’re doing it from home on your own laptop. It wasn’t normal."
For a team with a lot of new faces and a new head coach, that presented some added challenges.
In his first year with the team, coach Peter Laviolette had a shortened training camp and no preseason to prepare. In addition, his ability to meet and speak with players over the course of the season was also limited.
"Meetings going out on HUDL calls, so many meetings, just not in-person meetings that you weren’t able to meet with a group," Laviolette said. "You’re not able to take the players and put them in a locker room and say, ‘Hey, let’s have a chat for 10 minutes.’ Those things didn’t happen this year. So it just made it a little bit more difficult.
"There’s still a lot of people that I haven’t met. I just met somebody that works for [general manager Brian MacLellan] up in the front office, somebody I should’ve met six months ago. I just met him for the first time two days ago. I haven’t met any of the players’ kids when they bring them to the rink. There’s just a lot of things that were different that were impersonal."
The NHL shortened the regular season from 82 games to 56, but the schedule was condensed to an extreme degree and the physical toll it began to take on the players became obvious.
Some teams were hit by the injury bug harder than others, but the Caps were among the worst.
In one of the last games of the regular season against the Philadelphia Flyers, Washington took to the ice for a power play with all five players from its top unit unavailable: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Oshie and John Carlson. Many of those players continued to deal with injuries into the playoffs as well which contributed to the team's early demise.
"I'm sure some guys, wear and tear over the year, it was tough," Carlson said. "We went through stretches where in a normal year, you get kind of a compacted week or two weeks of games and then you get a let-up period, but this year we had a compacted week or two and then it just never let up. Probably leaguewide, I don't know, but I'd assume the injuries of overuse were where higher than in a normal year."
Less obvious than the physical toll was the mental one. This year was a strain for everyone involved and there isn't a player in the Caps' locker room that is not looking forward to next season and what is expected to be a return to normalcy.
"We all look forward to getting back to some sort of normalcy and some sort of fans in the stands for next year," Eller said. "No doubt about that. I personally missed that.”
"There’s definitely an excitement already for next year," Dillon said. "I think we have as good of a group as we do, and you’ve experienced some winning seasons, you just want things to be back — to have fans, to have those feelings of going into the different arenas.
"And just experiencing winning, i think, it’s better when our game’s normal."