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Rookies' adjustments to NHL made tougher by COVID-19 restrictions

Bonding with teammates, learning NHL lifestyle challenging because of virus protocols

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

Josh Norris figures that, if nothing else, he's pleasing his parents.

In a normal season, one unaffected by COVID-19 protocols, mask wearing and limited chances to leave his apartment, the 21-year-old might be spending his free nights out. Instead he's staying in and picking up some new habits.

"I've found that I've read a lot more this year," the Ottawa Senators forward said. "That's good for your brain. It's good especially before bed. It calms me down and sets me up for a good night of sleep.

"That's obviously one positive, and I know my mom would be happy I'm reading more."

In a trying season for everyone in the NHL, there's one group that has been especially challenged: rookies.

It can be difficult for new players to transition to life in the NHL during the best of times. Now because of changes implemented to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, rookies have fewer chances to build relationships and bond with teammates and coaches. At the same time, they are learning how to live alone in cities where often they have no family or friends.

"Everything is so locked down and so monitored that it is difficult to create those natural bonds that young players form with their teammates, especially the rookies," New York Rangers coach David Quinn said.

The Rangers have four rookies getting regular playing time: forwards Alexis Lafreniere, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, and Julien Gauthier, defenseman K'Andre Miller and goalie Igor Shesterkin. Lafreniere and Miller each made his NHL debut this season; Shesterkin and Gauthier each played 12 games for New York last season.

Video: NYR@WSH: Panarin links with Lafreniere for goal

The lack of casual downtime is the primary culprit in derailing the bonding experience. With rules designed to mitigate the spread of the virus, the organic opportunities to hang out, especially at hotels on the road, have been all but eliminated.

In previous seasons rookies could mingle with older, more established players by playing table tennis in player lounges at practice rinks, grabbing dinner on the road, lingering at a team meal. Now there are mandated distances, mandated masks. Meetings have migrated online.

As New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz said earlier in the season, "I think it does limit you sometimes for the, I'll just say, the impromptu sort of conversations. You don't have those as much. Sometimes those conversations, they have the most value."

Much of the bonding now is done on the ice.

"When you're around the rink, I think you've got to make the most of it and talking to one another, especially younger guys, making them feel comfortable and always chatting," veteran Boston Bruins forward Charlie Coyle said. "The standard here is everyone is treated the same and we need everyone on the same boat and feeling comfortable so they can go out and play their game as best they can."

Sometimes it's the tiniest of interactions that can have a significant impact.

"Something as little as an older guy pulling you aside and just giving you tips on something, or just letting you know to stay confident, just little talks like that," Norris said. "Just little things like that go a long way. That's how you start creating relationships."

Norris, who has scored 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in 20 games, said veteran forward Derek Stepan has filled that role for him this season.

Video: MTL@OTT: Norris deflects goal for 2-1 lead in 3rd

Video games also have their place in the process, as they would for this generation in any other profession.

"I'm not the biggest video game guy, but I think I've played more this year than I have in the past," Los Angeles Kings rookie defenseman Mikey Anderson said. "It's a way for me to stay engaged with some friends back home, play with some teammates out here."

FaceTime, too, has been a saving grace, allowing for a sense of connection and for learning some of the necessary skills for teenagers and 20-somethings living on their own for the first time.

Liam Foudy, who had three assists in 12 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets before being reassigned to Cleveland of the American Hockey League on Friday, will FaceTime with his mother as she counsels him on making his own meals after years of Foudy letting his billet families and parents cook for him.

As the 21-year-old said, "It's been a learning process."

For some, the loneliness has been lessened by living with teammates, like Lafreniere and Miller. Norris and forward Brady Tkachuk, also 21 but in his third NHL season, already had planned to live together. When forward Tim Stutzle returned from playing for Germany at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship, the 19-year-old was added to the mix.

"It's great, especially considering everything that's going on right now," Norris said. "It's nice to have two roommates who are all right around the same age. We have our fun at the house and play video games and keep things loose.

"It wouldn't be fun to live by yourself or be stuck in a hotel room. And I don't think that's good for anybody, especially mentally. So it's great to have a couple of roommates."

Video: OTT@MTL: Stutzle scores on power-play

That's also been the case for Anderson, who is on his second season of living with forward Blake Lizotte. The 21-year-old said it's been helpful that many of the young Kings players got to know each other through activities organized for prospects, like past development camps. Seven rookies have played at least one game for the Kings this season, tied with the Dallas Stars and New Jersey Devils for second-most in the NHL, behind the Chicago Blackhawks (eight).

"It's nice being able to go home and have a face to be able to talk to and not be completely alone throughout the day and night," said Anderson, who has four assists and is averaging 21:24 of ice time in 17 games, and has played on a defense pair with veteran Drew Doughty. "Having at least one body at the house with me, it makes days go by faster for sure."

But it's not for everyone.

Colorado Avalanche rookie defenseman Bowen Byram opted to move out of the hotel he was in at the start of the season and into a place of his own for the first time, acknowledging that even with the loneliness of the past year he was excited.

"It's kind of less things to think about," said the 19-year-old, who got to know some of his new teammates while serving as an extra player with the Avalanche during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. "It's just me, myself and I most of the time, so just being able to worry about hockey for the most part and worry about my play and getting ready to play. I think that's helped me a bit."

Byram has two assists and is averaging 18:12 of ice time in 12 games, sixth among NHL rookie defensemen who have played at least 10 games.

He has been catching up with friends during his downtime with phone calls and video game chats. He is close with Buffalo Sabres rookie forward Dylan Cozens, his co-captain with Canada at the 2020 WJC, and they talk frequently, including about what they've been going through this season.

Some young players see the pandemic and the protocols as an equalizing force. While in prior seasons they might be a step behind some of their more veteran teammates, this season that's not necessarily the case.

"We're all going through it together on the off-ice [protocols] for the first time," Foudy said.

In some ways, that levels the playing field.

But there are some things that these rookies miss experiencing.

The roar of the crowd when they score their first NHL goal? Friends and family in the stands for their debuts? Not this season. Most have made their peace with the disappointments, preferring to think about all they're gaining.

"I was still super excited, for sure," said Cozens, who made his NHL debut Jan. 14 and scored his first goal Jan. 22 against the Washington Capitals. He has scored three points (two goals, one assist) in 11 games.

"The only thing I would have rather had was probably my family in the building. But other than that, like, a goal is a goal. It's in the NHL, whether there's fans or not. It's still in the league I've dreamed of playing in my whole life."

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