TORONTO - On a steamy, sunny Sunday afternoon in Raleigh, the familiar sounds of the Carolina Hurricanes' warning siren rang out.
Jordan Martinook and Don Waddell were perched in the back of a pickup truck riding around PNC Arena. Martinook cranked the siren, firing up the parade of more than 1,000 cars that lined Peter Karmanos Jr. Drive and E. Stephen Stroud Way around the circumference of the building.
Fans might not be able to enjoy the 2020 postseason in-person, but from the safety of their own vehicles, they showed up in droves on short notice to see the Canes off to Toronto, one of two hub cities that will play host to the Stanley Cup Qualifiers and Stanley Cup Playoffs beginning on Aug. 1.
As the team buses departed for Raleigh-Durham International Airport, they made a lap around the arena. Flags waved, signs shook, horns honked and fans cheered, a jubilant procession of well-wishes for a hockey club that soaked up every second of the heartfelt support.
For the first time in over four months, a chartered flight was waiting to take the team on the road. A normal road trip? Hardly. But in 2020, a year rife with altered routines and uncertainty, Phase 4 of the NHL's Return to Play Plan is about as normal as it gets.
The flight was, more or less, the same as all the others the Canes had taken in 2019-20. The flight crew was familiar, as was the catered dinner from Happy & Hale. Card games, movies, music, naps, all the usual in-flight activities. But there were also masks, plenty of hand sanitizer and a brief health screening after deplaning.
The Canes arrived at the Fairmont Royal York hotel in downtown Toronto around 8:30 on Sunday night. They picked up their room keys, credentials and health information packets, all the essentials for life inside the Phase 4 Secure Zone, the bubble that includes the team's hotel and Scotiabank Arena, plus Exhibition Place (Hotel X and BMO Field).
As the Canes exited the elevators on their floor of the hotel - each of the seven teams at the Fairmont are concentrated on their own floor - they were greeted with a banner that read "Earn It," a signature locker room mantra. Flags with the primary logo adorn the walls, while decals with the secondary logo are plastered on each room door.
And even though the Canes crossed a border, they still found comforts of home waiting for them in their rooms, as the team arranged framed family photos on each nightstand.
"It's not a fun feeling," Jordan Staal said about leaving his family in Raleigh. "It is a short period. It might not feel like it when you're going through it, being away from kids that long and the wife, but it's part of the gig right now, an unfortunate one. It's going to be tough. A lot of FaceTime. It will be nice to get home to them with a ring around the finger."
As the lights went out on the first night in Toronto and the last game of cards or Super Tock wrapped up in the players' lounge at the end of the hallway, the Canes settled into their home away from home for the foreseeable future.
Monday marked the first full day of bubble life and it began with a daily process from here on: COVID-19 testing. Breakfast and a team meeting set the table for the team's first practice day in Toronto, and Justin Williams, Jordan Martinook and Rod Brind'Amour connected virtually with the media.
"I think we're all excited to be here," Brind'Amour said. "It's been a long process, but now that we're here, you know that hockey is around the corner and is a real possibility."
Hockey is indeed around the corner. The Canes will face the Washington Capitals in an exhibition game on Wednesday, July 29 at 4 p.m., which will serve as a dress rehearsal ahead of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, which begin on Saturday, Aug. 1.
With those dates circled on this week's calendar, the Canes got on the ice at Ford Performance Centre for their first practice in Toronto just after noon on Monday.
"The one place that it actually feels normal is when you lace your skates up," Brind'Amour said.
Dougie Hamilton did not practice, as expected, and neither did Martin Necas, who "did something while he was skating around" on Saturday, Brind'Amour said. Those two bumps and bruises aside, the Canes are itching to drop the puck.
"It's going to be a hard, hard one to win," Martinook said. "Everybody is kind of at level playing ground. We're excited for the challenge."
Following Monday's practice, a portion of the team branched off to grab lunch at the team's designated lunch restaurant - assigned restaurants are protocol during the first five days in the bubble - at BMO Field. That also meant there was time (and more room) for activities, like foosball, Spikeball, football and more.
Another designated restaurant inside the bubble awaits for dinner, and the Canes will do it all again on Tuesday.
"I've been itching at the bit to get going here," Vincent Trocheck said. "I know all the guys in here really want to win a Stanley Cup. That's what we're fighting for."