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Blue Jackets face challenge of staying ready for potential return

Situation a 'bit crazy,' but team members look to stay in shape

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

It helps Nelson Ayotte that he's kind of been there, done this before.  

The Blue Jackets' director of high performance -- aka, the franchise's man who helps players become physically ready to perform at their best -- is in a bit of a weird world. With the NHL season on pause because of the COVID-19 threat, players have been given the opportunity to leave Columbus and return home until what's next becomes clear.

That's never happened before in the stretch run of a season -- with 70 games played, Columbus had just 12 games left on the schedule when the pause hit -- so the players and Ayotte are handling a new situation on the fly.  

But for Ayotte, it reminds him of something that happened less than a decade ago. When the 2012-13 NHL season was shortened to 48 games and didn't begin until in mid-January because of a lockout, players were in the same "play it by ear" scenario they're currently in.  

It came at the start of a season rather than in the middle, but to Ayotte, there are some similarities when it comes to waiting to see what happens, then -- if all works out -- having to get players ready to go on a somewhat condensed timeline.  

"To me, it reminds me a lot of the lockout we had in 2012 because we came back in the middle of the season, but until then, we didn't know what was going on," he said. "We kind of go about our business with this. We're getting the boys to get prepared so whenever we are told we're as ready as possible. It's a bit crazy, but it's reminiscent of the lockout."  

Everyone is handling the situation on the go, which includes the NHL. When the season was officially paused last Thursday, players were told to stay in their teams' cities, though team facilities were closed to players in an effort to control any potential spread of the virus.  

On Monday, players were told they could return to wherever they consider home. They are still advised by the league to self-quarantine through at least March 27 and to report any potential symptoms of the virus should they come up. There is one exception, as players rehabbing long-term injuries are permitted access to team facilities to work with team medical staffers.  

According to a press release issued Monday by the NHL, "depending on world events between now and then, consideration will be given to the opening of Club facilities to Players in scheduled and coordinated small groups for voluntary training and care of the Players on the same basis as in the offseason." That's with an eye on potentially opening a training camp ahead of a return to the ice in about 45 days.  

Of course, that's all dependent on the spread of the virus, and how things will shake out across the world and in society remains to be seen. It's an uncertain world, but Ayotte and strength and conditioning coach Kevin Collins have given players some general advice for their workouts, including a focus on lower back exercises, being on top of supplements and nutrition, and adding more outdoor activities.   

"It's mostly an indoor sport, but we pushed them a bit to go outside more, bike and run where there's less chance of contamination," Ayotte said.

He added that some individual advice was handed out as well, especially considering players might have different workout facilities available to them in their personal lives. Markus Nutivaara, for example, ordered a set of dumbbells to allow himself to work out at home rather than in team facilities, while Nick Foligno has a gym in his Columbus home. After all, these are pro athletes, and they're going to do what is necessary to be ready when the time comes.   

"The boys want to know what they need to do to stay in shape, and those guys, often they're guys that as soon as the season is over, they take four or five days and get back at it," said Ayotte, who has been with the team since 2016 and has worked with high-level athletes for decades. "A lot of them need to train, so they are going to go train anyway. For me, it feels like the offseason. We need to get ready when the league says it's time to go again."  

Appearing on The Inside Edge presented by Kia on Wednesday, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen agreed.

"These guys are professional athletes," Kekalainen said. "They take pride in their shape and condition and preparation, so I think with leadership from Nelson Ayotte and Kevin Collins, guys are going to get very specific instructions as well on how to get around and stay in shape without the full gym or the skating that now we're not allowed to do at our rink or any public rink.

"You can go outside and you can run. Most of the guys have some equipment in their apartment or their house. There's lots of different ways to get around. You have rubber bands, you have TRX, you have bikes that you can take outside. It's going to get to 70 degrees by the end of the week. If there's a will, there's a way, and I'm 100 percent sure our guys are taking this very seriously to be in the best possible condition to be back."

Another thing Ayotte pointed out -- the Blue Jackets are in the same boat as 30 other teams in the league. That means no matter what ends up happening as far as when NHL hockey will return, everyone will have been through the same time off and unique circumstance.  

"The reality of it is there's 30 other teams that are in the exact same pattern as us," said Ayotte. "Nobody has a real disadvantage here. Everyone is in the same boat." 

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