“I want to see this Winnipeg Jets team play” is what stood out from the Paul Maurice video conference this morning. The answer was in response to “what do you want to see happen”, but he wanted it clear that what he and other hockey people want, is “small potatoes to what people are going through. Losing lives, the hardships, losing jobs. All that far outweighs what I want to see happen.”
For everyone involved with the NHL life changed dramatically March 11 and 12. The Jets were in Edmonton on the 11th starting a three-game road trip. A trip that took them to Calgary and Vancouver for games that meant so much in the standings. The Jets started the game mathematically out of a playoff spot, tied in points with Nashville and Vancouver but with more games played. Calgary sat one point ahead. Tied 2-2 going into the third, Kyle Connor scored early in the final frame, Connor Hellebuyck did his thing and the Jets skated away with a 4-2 win, jumping into the number one wild card spot, with third place in the Central in sight, just two points back of a struggling Dallas team.
But it was after the first period when coaches and players heard news of an NBA player testing positive for the coronavirus and that the league would be shutting down. However, the focus was still on hockey. “We were excited about our team. We were getting healthy, we liked our schedule. We were playing the teams we had to for getting into the playoffs.” Things changed quickly. “You rely on people above you to make decisions. The best decision was to get everybody home and we did that.”
The first few days were difficult as the NHL schedule dictates our daily moves. All of a sudden there was nowhere to go. Hockey was not that important. COVID-19 had put the NHL on pause.
It was an emotional time for all, head coach Maurice included. “Our team had been taxed to the max, we saw a light at the end of the tunnel.” The season “was some of the most enjoyable moments of my coaching career. We became a group, we became a team, battled through a lot of adversity, watched players play through injuries.”
Road wins in San Jose and Vegas set the stage for a very good November. They talked about this team learning how to win. Players developing, turning the corner. The player and All-Star break could not come quick enough for the Jets. The injury list grew. A home loss to Tampa was followed by three straight road losses. The players were exhausted. And despite a home loss to Boston coming out of the break, the Jets had some jump back in their game and went into the pause on a 12-5-2 run and “learned how to stay in the fight.”
So now coaches pore over video, working on making players better for whenever the game returns. Looking for an edge. “Time to maybe put some new wrinkles into your game because no body has pre scouted you.”
But coaches are not the only ones still busy with the game. “Our medical people are in constant conversation with our players and families, making sure they are all okay. As for conditioning this is unique, not all players have gyms in their homes. Or climate prevents them from getting outdoors. So we have to get creative with workouts.”
So will hope meet reality? When will the “all clear” come from health people signalling our lives can start to return to normal. That is most important.
From a hockey standpoint, will that come in time for there to be a Stanley Cup winner? And again, we all understand hockey and sports as a whole, returning falls way down the “important” list. But we still get asked about it, we talk about it, we write about it. All ideas being discussed by the NHL and the players, are on the table. As way out there as they may seem today.
Paul Maurice likes his team. Wants to see it compete for a playoff spot. He feels they have earned that right. He wants to see it compete for the Stanley Cup. For the Jets, some regular season games need to be played. If a simple winning percentage is used to determine the 16 playoff teams, the Jets get squeezed out. Five teams have eight home games remaining, seven more have seven. So if/when the 2019-20 season comes off pause, you get the feeling some form of a regular schedule will be played out. Both for determining who makes the playoffs, and also to get players ready for the postseason.
The list of what will go into all these decisions is a long one. It will get figured out.
But for now, look after your loved ones, look after yourself. Be safe. Hockey can wait.