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How the Canes Are Staying Safe, Adapting to New Protocols

Staal: 'We're going to do our best to stay out of that mess and take care of each other'

by Michael Smith @MSmithCanes / Hurricanes.com

The first day of practice for the Carolina Hurricanes in training camp - skates carving into the ice at Wake Competition Center, pucks tickling the twine, bodies banging against the boards, whistles blowing, smiles abound - felt refreshingly normal in a time where the definition of such is increasingly relative.

The second day on the ice was much of the same. More skating. More drills. More hockey.

But it's also important to consider the backdrop against which this is all being staged, an ongoing global health crisis that is forcing the National Hockey League and its 31 clubs to reconsider the tried-and-true process of playing a regular season.

Just how different is this training camp so far?

Jaccob Slavin held up his black Bauer face mask.

"It's different in the sense that we're getting used to wearing these around the rink and the locker room and all the little protocols we have to go through," he said. "But we've got to do what we've got to do to be able to play the season."

Video: "Everything is just heightened."

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Hockey League paused its 2019-20 regular season on March 12, 2020. A little more than four months later, it orchestrated a return to the ice for 24 teams in an expanded postseason tournament. With secure zone bubble environments in Toronto and Edmonton, the NHL awarded the Stanley Cup with no trace of the novel coronavirus amongst 33,394 tests conducted July 26-Sept. 28. 

That, in itself, was an immense undertaking, but its resounding success proved that sports are viable - and, most importantly, safe - in a controlled environment.

A bubble, though, is not logistically feasible for an entire league and an entire season.

So, now the NHL faces perhaps an even more herculean task of staging an 868-game regular season in 31 cities around North America while also maintaining the health and safety of all involved.

Things this year are decidedly different. They have to be.

"We have to take care of each other, take care of ourselves and make sure we're following the protocols the league has put in place in our home cities and on the road," Slavin said. "We have to make sure everyone is staying safe when they can."

Some little tweaks are more familiar. Masks are commonplace. The coaches are even wearing masks on the ice during practice and will wear them on the bench during games. COVID-19 tests are daily for at least the first month of the season. Each player has his own water and Gatorade bottle on the bench. Common spaces in the locker room are sanitized regularly. Physical distancing is practiced as much as possible.

Some protocols are more drastic and unfamiliar. Road travel is going to be starkly different. In addition to playing two games in one trip to a city, members of a team's traveling party are essentially restricted to their individual hotel rooms and the rink, an artificial bubble when an actual one is unattainable.

"I think the guys are starting to learn that the road might be a little different, in addition to our daily lives here in Raleigh," Jordan Staal said. "I think the staff and everyone here has done a great job of making sure the players are aware of what we need to do."

Video: "We're getting our legs and speed under us."

The NHL has the benefit of not only the Return to Play experience but also the leagues that came before them, as both MLB and the NFL had hurdles to overcome in staging their seasons. Lessons from those instances helped guide protocols, as the Canes and the NHL as a whole aim to avoid having the 2020-21 campaign derailed, even temporarily, by COVID-19.

"The first thing that comes to my mind is contact tracing. Look at the situation that happened with the Broncos and their quarterbacks. They had to play a wide receiver at quarterback for a game because all the quarterbacks were in one meeting without their masks on," Slavin said. "We have to make sure we're following the protocols strictly to make sure no one misses a game when they don't have to miss a game."

One hallmark of a championship culture is togetherness, often achieved through team-building activities or simply hanging out away from the rink. That could be virtually non-existent this season as protocols intend to limit outside contact.

Luckily for the Canes, they're returning essentially the same team that spent three-and-a-half weeks together in Toronto just a handful of months ago.

"In the past, you talk about getting together, hanging out and being around each other. Everything you've preached and wanted to see, now you don't want to see. You turn the dressing room upside down, take the lounges away," head coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "We've got to use our time wisely when we are together here and on the ice."

In many ways, progressing through this season as safely as possible is going to resemble the way we all have progressed through our daily lives for the last 10 months: by being smart, by taking precautions and by looking out for our neighbors.

"Understand that if somebody gets [the virus], you're going to hurt the team," Staal said. "No one is immune to this thing, but we're going to do our best to stay out of that mess and take care of each other."

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