As they walked off the team bus and into the Ford Performance Centre for Monday's first practice in the NHL hub of Toronto, the Blue Jackets players wore a united front.
Each of the 31 players wore matching "Let's Play Bubble Hockey" T-shirts as they entered the practice rink, something put together by captain Nick Foligno and his friends at Homage on a last-minute basis before the team left for Canada.
"We had an idea," Foligno said. "It's just something a little bit fun. We know the seriousness of the situation, but for us to have a little fun while we're here, show a little flair, I think that's what's exciting about this is you get to see some personality you don't normally see.
"They looked good on the guys. It was a lot of fun today."
In many ways, the shirts were the perfect statement on a day that blended so much familiar with so much new. So much is weird -- or at least different -- as the Blue Jackets get ready to take on Toronto starting Sunday in a five-game Stanley Cup qualifying series, as the NHL tries to finish its season after a four-month pause brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Yet at the end of the day, hockey is still hockey, and the team's hour-long practice session at the Ford Performance Centre was nothing out of the ordinary, head coach John Tortorella said.
"We're in a bubble," Tortorella said. "This morning, I felt that a little bit. You can't go out for a walk. You have to mind yourself as far as staying in the hotel. I think they were glad to get on the ice and skate. They were full of energy. We had a really good practice. As it gets closer to a game, even an exhibition game, you're getting excited to play so I thought we practiced really well today.
"We went through our routine as far as working on some of our structure of our neutral zone, a number of different things with the X's and O's and also worked on our special teams. There's no -- I don't want you guys to overthink it. There's nothing special going on. We're going to play as a team. We're going to play the game we think we need to play and just go play. There's nothing tricky going on here at all."
As Tortorella referred to, the historic restart of the NHL season after four-plus months off because of the coronavirus pandemic includes the bubble regulations and protocols as the league and its health experts do everything in their power to keep the virus from spreading among players and teams.
Columbus got its first taste of that Sunday upon arrival in The Six, and it seems like so far, so good. While the NHL announced Monday that no players had tested positive from July 18-25 before arrival to the hub cities, for the first five days, team members are expected to interact only among themselves in order to prevent any virus flareups that could spread from team to team in the bubble, and all members of the 52-person traveling party are being tested on a daily basis.
Many of these health protocols were agreed upon by the NHL and its players association as part of the return to play negotiations that were ratified earlier this month.
"It's a lot of uncertainty when we're in Phase 2 (voluntary workouts) and Phase 3 (training camp)," defenseman Seth Jones said. "We were hearing different things every day. It's great. You have to give a lot of props to the NHL, a lot of props to the PA for both sides to come together and put this together as safe as we could in such a time-sensitive manner. We're happy to be here and we're ready to play."
The Blue Jackets are headquartered at the Fairmont Royal York hotel in Toronto just steps from Scotiabank Arena. Each team has been provided with a team lounge and meeting room in the hotel, and a team breakfast is provided. There are dining options within the bubble and players can order from the outside using such services as UberEats, while there is a concierge service available should players need something they forgot to pack for the trip.
For those first few days especially but even as the postseason tournament goes on, Cam Atkinson said the bond forged among the players will be crucial given how much they'll be together over what is hoped to be a long playoff run.
"For me, I feel like it has the feel of a world championship where you have all the teams in the same vicinity in the hotel," he said. "You walk out the elevator and you never know who you're going to run into. But it's nice to just be around the guys almost 24/7. Ultimately that bond is so crucial and so important for us during this stretch. We have a lot of young guys on our team, so to be around each other a lot is important for us for the morale and whatnot.
"It has kind of a cool feel to it, I think. It's a little bit more casual with the dress code as well, which is always nice."
Because as the T-shirts say, welcome to bubble hockey.
On The Ice
The Blue Jackets' main practice lasted around an hour, players said, and the team began with the following lines, according to CBJ Public Relations.
Nick Foligno - Pierre-Luc Dubois - Oliver Bjorkstrand
Gus Nyquist - Boone Jenner - Cam Atkinson
Alexandre Texier - Alexander Wennberg - Emil Bemstrom
Eric Robinson - Riley Nash - Liam Foudy
Zach Werenski - Seth Jones
Vladislav Gavrikov - David Savard
Ryan Murray - Dean Kukan
Scott Harrington - Markus Nutivaara
Joonas Korpisalo/Elvis Merzlikins