Settled back in his hometown of North Vancouver, Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly is still searching for a new normal amid the global COVID-19 pandemic that forced the NHL to pause its 2019-20 season three weeks ago.
“There's no escaping it and it's a strange time for everyone,” Rielly said on a conference call with reporters on Thursday. “It’s been challenging at times [to cope] but I know that we're all experiencing that, we’re all in it together and nobody is really prepared to do the quarantine and experience this much alone time and downtime if you will.”
In the wide-ranging media session, Rielly touched on everything from his current hobbies and advancements in the kitchen, to the Leafs’ inconsistencies this year and his own recovery from a broken foot that stole eight weeks of his season.
Those topics and more are below in five takeaways from Rielly’s conference call.
1. No easy answers for NHL’s return
When the NHL halted operations on March 12, the league did so with no firm idea of when or if the 2019-20 campaign would start up again, either to finish out the regular season or even jump right into the playoffs. There’s been little clarity on the matter in weeks since, although public health and safety are obviously top concerns for the league and its teams in making a decision.
Like everyone else around the NHL, Rielly has theorized about what a resumption might look like but hasn’t landed on any good answers.
“I think that's what we're all kind of wondering right now,” Rielly said. “I don't know. But I can tell you that we do have calls as a team and as players around the league, and we talk about those sorts of things. A point comes where it's not really in our control. But I guess the question is how late is too late? I don't know. I know as players, we all want to play, and have a chance to play in playoffs, but health comes first, there's no question about that. So, we're kind of in a holding pattern because we're trying to do what's best for general health, for people everywhere. It's obviously much bigger than hockey. I can tell you that the players miss playing, want to play, and it's certainly strange not being out there. But at this point, I think we have to do what's best for the general health in the big picture.”
2. Foot healed just in time – for another pause
When Rielly blocked a shot in the first period of Toronto’s game against Florida on Jan.12, he ended up with a broken foot that took eight weeks to heal. When the blueliner returned to action, it was on March 10, in a 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning at home.
The NHL hit pause two nights later, an especially frustrating development for Rielly after two long months of rehabbing. But he’s determined to see the positive in how that situation played out.
“I'm happy I played one [game], because I think I'd be going crazy if I hadn't played since early January,” Rielly said. “That was truly a long process of trying to heal and trying to keep yourself in shape. Eight weeks go by and you're really working hard to get back and then to play one game, it's certainly not ideal. When you're training in the gym and trying to get back to play, you're picturing playing 12 or 13 games, and then playoffs, not taking a pause again. But in that same breath, if I hadn't come back and played one game, it would make it worse.
“When I look back at the injured foot, that's one of those things where you don't have complete control over it, it’s a bump in the road over the course of a long year. It's obviously not what you want when you prepare for a season and you try to stay healthy, you try to do what you can to keep yourself in the lineup and obviously I wasn't expecting to miss eight weeks. That was a bit out of my control so you do your best to rehab and try to get healthy and I think I did that.”
3. Inconsistency issues everywhere
A year ago, Rielly was firmly in discussions as a potential Norris Trophy contender, putting up a career-high 72 points (20 goals, 52 assists) in 82 games over the 2018-19 season. His numbers took a dip in 2019-20, to where he sits with 27 points (three goals, 24 assists) in 47 games to date.
In many ways, Rielly’s own ups and downs have mirrored those of the Leafs, a team that went through a November coaching change, and slid in and out of the playoff picture before taking a firmer hold of third place in the Atlantic Division before the NHL’s pause.
“I think that there were times where I was good and I think that there are times where I felt that I could have been better,” Rielly said. “And I think that's a bit how we as a team look back at the year and the games that we did play. Both [I] and the team would like to be more consistent and I think that's a goal for us both moving forward. I think that's my job as an individual to be prepared and be consistent and, as a group, we want to be more consistent than we were this year.
"With the bad is always good [though]. I thought that we answered the bell at times when we had to against some pretty good teams. And then the downs were the games where you're supposed to win or you really expect a good team to be able to win and we weren't able to execute that. But I can't really put my finger on [why]. But I think you have to keep in mind that there were positives over the course of the season. And when hockey does resume, I think we know that we have to be better and we have to be more consistent and I think that this time [off] is important for the players to really think about that.”
4. Cooking it up, in good company
Rielly has been holed up at home in Vancouver with his girlfriend – Canadian Olympic figure skating champion Tessa Virtue, a relationship he’s reluctant to talk about but one that has helped get him through this unexpected stretch.
“We're both in it together, we're trying to keep each other sane and we're doing what we can to do our part and just quarantine,” Rielly said. “I really won't talk about it too much, I'll just say that I'm glad I'm not alone because I think that can be challenging.”
Staying indoors has meant a lot more home cooking for Rielly, who isn’t used to preparing quite so much of his own food but he's found the process enjoyable.
“We've been cooking every meal and that's new to me; normally you'd eat at the rink or you go out for dinner if you're on the road,” he said.
“We've been barbecuing chicken and steak and then doing some pasta and stuff. The only thing I haven't gotten to that I don't have the confidence yet for is fish. I don't want to undercook it and then we've got a whole other situation on our hands.”
When he’s not in the kitchen, Rielly’s been passing his time with movies, puzzles and books, including one on mental health gifted to him by Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas.
“If you've played for Kyle for long enough, he's probably given you a book, whether it's at Christmas or at the end of the year or something like that,” Rielly said. “I probably won't give the name of it, just because it was personal, but it's not anything that's too serious. I'm pretty much open to just about anything. I just read 'Shoe Dog’ [by Nike creator Phil Knight] which I liked a lot. And then I just read a book not too long ago called ‘Educated' [by Tara Westover] which I really liked as well.”
5. Pause to reflect
If Rielly had his way, he and the Leafs would be finishing out the regular season and gearing up for the playoffs this week. Instead, he’s searching for a new routine that suits self-isolation and taking advantage of the opportunity to look back on what was – and what could still be ahead.
“I've just been trying to keep in touch with teammates and friends and family and do some home workouts and just try to keep your mind busy,” Rielly said. “It's been important just to have a routine and try to create a schedule to keep yourself on pace to maintain a little bit of fitness. I'm still working at it, I certainly think that I can do a better job of maintaining my schedule but I’ve just been trying to keep myself on track, and that’s been home workouts in the morning, make some phone calls, read something and spend some time at home.
"During a pause like this, you have lots of time to process what happened over the course of the year so far. And you look back and you reflect and you picture things going differently, what you liked, what you didn't like, and this is a really good opportunity for players to do some thinking about that kind of stuff. It’s hard not to do, especially when you get in touch with people from the team, or friends, you talk about the year. But you're also focused on trying to keep yourself in shape in the event the year resumes. So I think it's a mix of trying to keep yourself focused and also do some reflecting.”