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Blue Jackets roll with the punches amid pandemic

Columbus alters practice schedule Friday as players held out for precautionary reasons

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Just as he did this summer as the Blue Jackets prepared to head to the NHL playoff bubble, John Tortorella came to Columbus training camp this season well aware that his team would have to flexible and handle whatever might be thrown at it. 

It's the way everyone has to be as the world navigates the coronavirus pandemic, and Tortorella made it clear to his players as the team opened training camp Monday that resiliency would be a key attribute this season. 

"That's a big point that I'm bringing up with our opening meeting -- there is no complaining about anything," the head coach said. "Things are different. We need to handle it and do it the right way." 

And as he arrived Friday morning ahead of the team's fourth on-ice skate of training camp, with the season opener just six days away, Tortorella found out today would be a day the Blue Jackets would have to roll with the punches. 

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The Blue Jackets held a number of players out of today's scheduled practice out of an abundance of caution and in accordance with NHL Covid-19 protocols, a reality Tortorella was informed of by head trainer Mike Vogt when he arrived at Nationwide Arena.  

What was expected to be a practice day with an NHL group and an AHL group instead was one session with an amalgamation of players from each group. In all, 21 of the 40 players who have skated thus far in camp took to the ice, with 10 members of the team's 26-player NHL group on the ice and the other 16 not taking part. 

Those from the NHL group who skated were forwards Pierre-Luc Dubois, Cam Atkinson, Riley Nash and Kevin Stenlund, defensemen Zach Werenski, Scott Harrington, Dean Kukan and Gabriel Carlsson, and goaltenders Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. 

"I just came here today like any other day ready to practice and ready to get to work," Werenski said. "But yeah, it was different. I'm sure things will be changing every day here with the COVID protocols and whatnot. I don't know too much of what's going on, I just came here ready to practice, but it's definitely different." 

Despite the absences, both Tortorella and Werenski said the Blue Jackets put in a solid hour of work, which concluded with 15 minutes of conditioning drills as most practices have so far this week. 

Again, resiliency is key. 

"We're not too worried about what is going to get thrown at us this year," Werenski said. "Today, we had a mixed group of guys and it was a great practice. We worked hard, got some stuff done. We can't really look at who is in our lineup and who's not. We have to go out there and do our job." 

One thing that will be different from when the group reconvened in July and then began the postseason in Toronto is the lack of a bubble this time around. Players during the playoffs stayed at a hotel in downtown Toronto and walked to Scotiabank Arena for games and practices, and they could not leave the fenced-off area except to travel to predetermined locations locked down by the NHL.  

This year, while there are protocols for where players can and cannot go on the road, team members will be living at their homes with family and be able to travel freely about their home cities.  

"The bubble was a lot of hand-holding if you think about it," CBJ captain Nick Foligno said. "We really didn't have to think about anything that we were doing. We were in the bubble. We weren't able to get to the outside world.  

"I think what is going to change is we're going to have to self police. We're going to have to be really cognizant of what we're doing and how that affects everybody. Before, there were no families involved, there was no worrying about going anywhere or doing anything wrong. Everything was taken care of for us. 

"Now you're going to go through some real-life things and some normal life aspects. There's going to be little instances I'm sure through the year where we're going to have to think about, 'Is this worth it?' as a group. Even at home, I have kids, the playdates, the things that they do, the activities -- you want them to continue to have a normal life but how does that affect me and my team? You never want to put somebody in a vulnerable position." 

That includes a decrease in contact and activities away from the rink for the players as well. New signing Max Domi said he hasn't had much of a chance to explore Columbus yet because of the virus, choosing instead to stay home and order food rather than check out local restaurants. Werenski added that he's been careful away from the rink as well, and that means fewer hangout sessions with teammates. 

"I've been here in Columbus for a month and a half maybe, close to two months almost, and I don't even remember the last time I hung out with the guys away from the rink," he said. "It's one of those things where we're here to do our job and win hockey games, and you have to be careful away from the rink." 

Tortorella said he's unsure what Friday's absences will mean going forward, with the Jackets currently scheduled to scrimmage again Sunday and open the season Jan. 14 in Nashville. The good news is the team was able to practice today and hopefully can use this experience as a positive as the season goes on. 

"Who knows what happens day to day?" Tortorella said. "Maybe it's good that it happens early on here to try to figure out protocol, try to drill home the protocol and how we adjust to it. I thought we had a really good day of work with the players that were there. That's how it's going to be sometimes. The players who are in the building are the players you're going to work with. That's just part of it." 

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