TORONTO -- The first team entered the Secure Zone at 10:49 a.m. ET on Sunday, when a guard opened a gate in the black fence surrounding the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto. Not one but two buses carried the Montreal Canadiens because of the space needed for social distancing.
Everyone wore a mask as the Canadiens collected luggage and walked into the hotel. They passed red velvet ropes cordoning off CLEAR kiosks, which, in addition to daily COVID-19 tests, everyone must use to receive health passes to move within the bubble by answering questions on an app and undergoing touchless temperature checks.
Preregistered, the Canadiens received room keys and welcome packets containing a Toronto hub city guide and a medical guidebook. Then they headed to the elevators, into which staff members ushered no more than two per car for social distancing. In 12 minutes, the entire team was on its floor.
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The scene repeated itself throughout the day Sunday, with 24 teams arriving in hubs for the Stanley Cup Qualifiers -- 12 Eastern Conference teams in Toronto, 12 Western Conference teams in Edmonton -- beginning Phase 4 of the Return to Play Plan after the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
Each team will play one exhibition, starting with the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday at Scotiabank Arena (4 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NBCSP+, ATTSN-PT). The qualifiers begin Aug. 1.
"Both of our buses pulled up, grabbed our luggage, grabbed our key cards and straight up the elevators," Nashville Predators defenseman Dante Fabbro said in a phone interview after checking into the JW Marriott in Edmonton. "Obviously, you still have all those rules in place, but for the most part it was pretty smooth."
Safe and seamless. That's the goal.
The teams were greeted by signs with safety reminders and bottles of hand sanitizer, many with Stanley Cup Playoffs logos and hashtags. The hub city guide included the boundaries of the bubble; the first page of the medical guidebook listed prevention tips, starting with "always wear your face covering" and "wash your hands regularly."
"They're all coming from different markets with different levels of COVID measures, I guess you would say," said Dean Matsuzaki, NHL executive vice president of events, who oversees the Toronto hub. "But when they get here, I think they'll be surprised to see everybody -- all hotel staff, all NHL staff, everybody -- wearing face protection."
The teams' arrivals were staggered throughout the day in each city Sunday, and the NHL worked with teams to schedule meals, so two teams wouldn't show up at the same restaurant at the same time. Especially for now, there is not just social distancing but team distancing.
"For obviously the whole event, we're all focused on social distancing and keeping everybody safe," Matsuzaki said. "But in particular, from the medical group and the Phase 4 protocol, the first five days teams must stick to their own cohort group, if you will. We don't want any mixing of teams with other teams or with even our staff, just to keep everybody as safe and isolated as possible to reduce risk of any kind of spreads."
Some teams provided surprises for people to feel at home. Predators center Matt Duchene posted on Instagram two family photos he found on his nightstand and wrote, "I'm not crying, you're crying."
Fabbro found a photo of him and his grandfather after his grandfather's first Predators game in Nashville, and another of him, his parents and his sisters when he played for Canada at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship.
"It was pretty cool to see that," Fabbro said. "I didn't realize they were going to do that. That's nice to have."
Everyone in the bubble must be alone in his or her assigned room. But each team has a meal room, a coaches room and a players lounge. Each lounge has a microwave, fridge, card table, television and gaming console. Each team has been provided a ping-pong table, and teams have added their own entertainment, including golf simulators, and decorations.
"I don't think anyone's expecting it to go smoothly, but I actually have been pleasantly surprised just on how much has been thought out here," Columbus Blue Jackets forward Nick Foligno said in a phone interview after checking in at the Royal York. "I think it's just going to take some getting used to, just because it's not our normal, right?
"We're such creatures of habit that when we travel, we're used to a certain way. To be restricted to certain things and wearing masks and all that is something we're going to get used to, but I think by Day 2 or 3, I think it'll just start to become our normal and we won't even notice some of the stuff."
Foligno, the Columbus captain, said he sensed buy-in from his teammates on the protocol. The last team might not leave the bubble for more than 70 days, because the last possible day of the Stanley Cup Final is Oct. 4, but the last team gets to leave with the Stanley Cup.
"I want to make sure I say this right," Foligno said. "It's an exciting time, I think, for a lot of guys. We've never experienced what we're experiencing right now, and I think guys don't want to be the reason anything gets screwed up. I think they also realize the opportunity we have in front of us to play for the Stanley Cup, but also the excitement of just being back. Now it feels real."
Staff writer Tom Gulitti contributed from Edmonton.