Gabriel Landeskog had a decent setup at his offseason home in Toronto, Ontario, where he had spent most of the past three months while the NHL was on pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Landeskog could use his home gym to train, was able to read plenty of books and was even able to begin skating again while shooting on a young, local goaltender, all while being with his wife, infant daughter and in-laws.
But skating with his Colorado Avalanche teammates, even if only a few of them are allowed on the ice at one time and with no coaches present, was enough of a draw for the nine-year veteran to return to Denver to participate in Phase 2 of the NHL's Return to Play Plan.
"I wanted to make sure I got back here, and even if it is five or six guys on the ice at a time, it's still NHL quality--the drills and we're working on certain things. That was one of the reasons," Landeskog said. "I wanted to get back here and make sure that I'm ready and this was one of the best possible scenarios in my opinion to make sure that I am ready. I didn't want to skate in Toronto on my own the whole time.
"The other part of it is I love Denver; this has been my home for the last nine years."
As soon as the NHL and NHL Players' Association announced the Return to Play Plan on May 26 and the transition to the next phase which allowed voluntary, small-group sessions to take place for each team, it got Landeskog eager to return to the practice ice and hopefully play games later this summer.
"I got excited," said the left wing from Stockholm, Sweden. "It was some positive news for the first time in a long time."
Landeskog has been joined by several of his teammates at Pepsi Center this week, taking part in on-ice sessions and off-ice workouts. As part of Phase 2 protocols, a maximum of six players are allowed at the facility at one time and are under a strict time limit once there. All players do not have to participate in this phase.
Compared to what it's been like for the previous 13 weeks for the Avs, any interaction at the rink was welcomed. The last time Landeskog and his teammates were at the Avalanche's home arena was to celebrate a 3-2 overtime victory against the New York Rangers; the league paused the 2019-20 campaign the following day.
"Really exciting being back at Pepsi Center [on Monday] for the first time since March 11," said Landeskog, who is in his eighth season as the team's captain. "That was awesome. I know it's a weird circumstance and there are a lot of protocols to follow, but for some reason it is what it is this year. The world is a crazy place right now, and my attitude is to always make the best of the situation and that is what we're trying to do. I'm taking it day by day and making the most of it."
Video: Landeskog during Phase 2 of the Return to Play Plan
Colorado's Phase 2 could be up to four weeks in length and if everything continues to progress well as everyone deals with the novel coronavirus, the league and players' association aims to begin Phase 3, full-team training camps, on July 10. The fourth and final phase is returning to game action at one of two hub cities in North America, with possible dates and venues for that round likely to be announced in the coming weeks.
There will be 12 teams from each conference participating in the NHL's Return to Play Plan. The bottom eight teams based on points percentage during the regular season will play a best-of-five qualifying series to earn a berth into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, while the top four teams have earned a bye to the postseason and will play in a round-robin series to determine seeding. The Avalanche finished second in the Western Conference and will compete against Central-Division rivals the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues and the Pacific Division's Vegas Golden Knights to figure out the top four spots in the West.
With four-plus months between competitions when games resume, Landeskog says whichever club can amp back up to the speed and intensity of late-season hockey the quickest will have an early advantage.
"Everybody is starting from scratch for being off for three months and staying in shape as good as you can," Landeskog said. "Obviously we'll have this training camp to allow us to come back together and work on systems and shake rust off. I think it evens the playing field I guess, all teams are going to be healthy for the most part, everybody has had time to heal bumps and bruises and injuries. Now it is just a matter of who is going to get off and running the fastest. I like our chances. We're still a pretty young team and we're an exciting group. I like what we can do."
The current situation in the world and the playoff format the NHL is implementing is different from what the players, coaches and fans have become accustomed to, but every sports league that is trying to comeback this year is facing their own daily challenges while keeping the health and safety of the players and other personnel as the top priority. The NHL has a bit of experience when it comes to a pandemic as the league cancelled the 1919 playoffs with one game remaining in the Stanley Cup Final due to the Spanish Flu, but a lot has changed in the world of sports in the last 100-plus years.
The league and players' association are still working out details on what life will be like at and away from the rink when games return, which will likely include no fans in the stands and some players possibly staying in the hub city for two months or longer while determining a champion. There will be plenty of challenges to Phase 4--each club is already facing plenty of difficulties now in Phase 2--but Landeskog is keeping an open mind to the current situation that everyone in the game is facing.
"The world feels at times that it is turned upside down right now," Landeskog said. "Everything else is different, so why would the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs be normal? Everything is a little bit different this year, and we just have to make the most of it. I hope the fans can get behind it and get excited about it as I am, because I'm excited to have a chance to take a run at the Stanley Cup this year."