Mitch Marner’s return to Ford Performance Centre last week for Phase 2 of the NHL’s Return to Play protocol gave the Maple Leafs winger a first-hand look at the league’s effort to protect player health and safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
With those initiatives in place – from regular testing to stringent physical distancing strategies – Marner is confident the NHL can find a safe path towards salvaging the 2019-20 campaign with a postseason tournament this summer.
“I think [the NHL] is going to do what's best for their athletes and make sure that they're going to look after us and take care of us,” Marner told reporters on a conference call Thursday. “I think the NHL has everything under control through what I've seen this last week or so at the rink. They’re doing all the right things to make sure no one is in the wrong or going to be in a bad place [health-wise]. For us, it's just making sure we're getting ready for the season to start [because] everything is [planned] like it is.”
There are no guarantees that the NHL will be able to restart, given the unpredictable nature of a public health crisis. But that hasn’t stopped the league from forging ahead though, albeit by baby steps.
After hitting pause on its operations in mid-March, the NHL opened Phase 2 on June 8, and announced July 10 as the start of training camps in Phase 3. Following that there will be a qualifying play-in round to establish a 16-team postseason in August.
This current stage of the NHL’s reboot isn’t mandatory for players, but a large swath of the Maple Leafs regulars have migrated back to Toronto so they can participate. Those who haven’t returned include Auston Matthews and Frederik Andersen, who have been quarantining together at Matthews’ home in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Given that Arizona reported a single-day high of more than 2,500 new cases of coronavirus on Thursday, Marner might have considered urging his teammates to come back to Canada and begin the government-mandated 14-day quarantine period sooner rather than later. But the 23-year-old said it’s not his place to interrupt anyone else’s preparation.
“All this stuff [Phase 2] is voluntary,” Marner said. "If they think that it's better for them to stay [down there] and do all their workouts and skating there, then I'm all for it. It's something very important that you need to do when you get back is quarantine, but at the same time, it's kind of hard to sit in a condo and try to get a bike or something to work out there for 14 days. I'd rather them still just be wherever they are right now and doing the workouts then being back here sitting around for 14 days.”
It was thought that Canada’s quarantine period would prevent Toronto from potentially being one of the NHL’s two hub cities in Phase 4, playing host to all 12 participating teams from one conference. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced earlier this week the Canadian government is “comfortable” having a hub city in Canada, and would work with the NHL and local health authorities on ways to make that happen. The league is poised to reveal its pick of hub cities in June 22.
Regardless of where that prospective Phase 4 is held, the Leafs will face Columbus in a best-of-five series to officially punch their ticket to the playoffs. It’s an opportunity Toronto’s head coach Sheldon Keefe has been preparing his players for since the league halted.
“Sheldon has been sending us videos of a lot of clips that he liked and clips that we can get better at and stuff like that, so I've been watching that,” the winger said. “It’s hard to really say what you can do [to improve] during this quarantine, since you couldn't really go into parks or anything like that. But, I've been rollerblading around our front yard, just shooting pucks outside, trying to keep myself feeling like I can still shoot a puck. I'm riding the [stationary] bike to keep the conditioning going. The real thing was just making sure we didn't stop working out; you had to get your body ready for whatever was going to happen and now we're back in a season kind of format feeling with a chance to play again.”
In a host of ways, these have been a surreal few months for everyone, and if the NHL succeeds in restarting what’s ahead won’t be normal either. Players will come in comparatively cold, with only a shortened training camp as warm-up to the most high-stakes portion of their year.
“It's just going to be a weird feeling,” Marner admitted of possibly going right into playoff hockey. “You’ll get that camp, but it's hard to really feel like you're in game shape until you get into that first game. So every day we're going to try and dial in everything in our game –defensively, offensively, supporting the puck all over the ice. That's something that we do very well that [allows us to be] a very successful team, so we just got to make sure we're ready."
That includes taking advantage of the training staff available in Phase 2, a luxury that players didn’t have access to for months but one that Marner said will be critical to the Leafs success going forward.
“You’re taking care of yourself on and off the ice,” Marner said. "And if you are with us, you have that one staff [member] in there to do physiotherapy with or whatever [treatments], so hopefully you get to use them as much as you can if you aren't feeling 100 per cent. But I think you are going to have to ease your way into it and get control. You're going to jump right into a playoff series against a competitive team that's going to play heavy, so make sure you're ready to play and for anything that happens.”