The Colorado Avalanche has officially arrived in the Western Conference hub city of Edmonton, Alberta, with the intent of returning to Denver with the franchise's third championship.
After pausing the season on March 12 due to concerns around the COVID-19 pandemic, the league worked with the Board of Governors and the National Hockey League Players' Association to create a Return to Play Plan that allows 24 teams to return to the ice and compete for the Stanley Cup.
The resumption of the 2019-20 season comes with a focus of maintaining the health and safety of the players and all those associated with the game, and in turn all of the club personnel in the hub city are living inside a secure "bubble"--also known as the Phase 4 secure zone--and will be tested daily for COVID-19 as well as be administered daily temperature checks and symptom screenings, without access to those outside of the bubble.
"This is definitely new territory and something new for all of us. I think it will benefit us, but there are a lot of unknowns too, right?" said Avs veteran Erik Johnson. "This playoff format in the bubble, I think there are probably going to be some guys who aren't going to be too happy cooped up in this bubble, but I think for us we have a young team who gets along really well, so if we are happy and having fun I think that is going to see good positive results on the ice.
"For us, we have a really good group with good team chemistry so I think that will help a lot going into the bubble, enjoying each other, having fun… We have had a lot of time off so guys are really looking forward to getting out there again and being with each other and I think that will benefit us."
Although traveling to play in a tournament for up to two and a half months is new to the players, the concept is not completely abnormal. Most of the members of the Avalanche are familiar with packing up and traveling to a new city with their teammates, it is something they have done throughout their entire lives, going back to their days playing in youth hockey tournaments.
"Knowing us and knowing our group and knowing the boys in there, you know, our group is awesome. We love hanging out with one another and this just feels like just a big, long minor hockey tournament where you're kind of hanging out with the boys all of the time," said Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog. "I guess the only difference would be that we're not going to be playing mini sticks in the hallway, I guess. But other than that, it should be a fun experience, a cool experience. Obviously we're going there to take care of business, but yeah we'll have to adapt as fast as we can and just accept it for what it is."
While the players in the Avalanche locker room genuinely enjoy spending time with each other, being confined to the secure zone means being without loved ones.
The players, coaches, trainers and support staff members are all leaving behind their friends and family for an indefinite amount of time. For Avs veteran defenseman Ian Cole, the trip to Edmonton means leaving his wife and newborn son back in Denver.
Cole, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, knows that it is not every year that you have a chance at lifting the silver chalice and hopes the sacrifice he is making with his family will ultimately lead to a third championship ring.
"I mean I think when the season got paused, we always knew that this could be a possibility. It's not ideal," said Cole of leaving his young family behind. "I don't think anyone wants to be shut into a bubble for potentially two months and some days. I don't think it's something people plan for, but like anything in life, you have to try to make the most of it. Like I said, we're going to have a great opportunity here, an opportunity to win a Stanley Cup. We're going to try to take advantage of that, and you know hopefully the family will still be there when I get home."
Video: Cole on the mindset of the Avs on heading to Edmonton
For other members of the Avalanche though, the trip to Alberta is a sort of a homecoming. Forward Tyson Jost is from the Edmonton suburb of St. Albert and defenseman Kevin Connauton hails from the hub city itself. However, they will have to stay in the secure zone and won't be able to see their friends and family in the area.
"I'll be about 15 minutes down the road from [my family], but I won't see them for two and a half months. It's going to be really weird," said Jost. "It is kind of frustrating I guess, just because I'd like to see them. You don't get to spend too much time with them especially when you are in Denver and they are in Edmonton and stuff like that. I am going to be just down the street from them and not be able to see them, so it's going to be tough. But, at the end of the day I am there to win a Stanley Cup and that's my job and that's my goal and that comes first. They will be cheering from afar but close, I guess you could say."
Colorado finished the 2019-20 regular season in second place in the Western Conference with a 42-20-8 record and .657 points percentage, just behind the St. Louis Blues, who had a 42-19-10 mark and .662 percentage while playing one more game. The Avalanche's .657 points percentage was the team's third highest since relocating to Denver, trailing only the 2000-01 cup-winning team (.720) and the 2013-14 squad (.683).
This postseason run marks the third straight year that the Avalanche has appeared in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, ranking as the third-longest run in franchise history.
"I don't think we have ever seen a stronger lineup than this in [my] tenure here so this is very exciting, and I think we are just scratching the surface on what we can do," said Landeskog, who is in his ninth season and eighth as team captain. "Having said that, we haven't accomplished anything, we haven't done anything, so we still have that chip on our shoulder, and we are still going into this thing to prove to people that we are ready for this. We are going to keep growing through this, and we are going to learn from this. I am real confident, real excited to see what our group can do, and it should be a fun ride."
While it is unknown how long each team will remain in the hub city, the Avs are looking to be there for the long haul and to return to Denver with hardware in hand.