Jets back on ice for 1st official practice since NHL suspended play in March
Qualifying rounds will begin Aug. 1 to determine teams that advance to Stanley Cup playoffs
The Winnipeg Jets are getting their skating legs back in shape with the NHL's abbreviated season set to resume in 2½ weeks.
Players took to the ice Monday at the Bell MTS Iceplex for the first official practice since the season was paused March 12 due to COVID-19. At the time, there were still 189 games remaining on the NHL's schedule.
Training camps across the league were opening as part of Phase 3 of the NHL's return-to-play plan, which dives right into the playoffs.
"It's a good idea because I'm a hockey fan and I'm going nuts," said Jets coach Paul Maurice on Monday.
"It's the middle of July, I didn't get to see playoffs, I want to see it."
The NHL announced earlier in spring that, if possible, it would complete the season by bringing back 24 of its 31 teams — 12 from each of the Eastern and Western conferences — based on the standings when the shutdown occurred.
Pucks will drop on Aug. 1, with a number of games taking place throughout the day in two host cities: Toronto and Edmonton.
The Jets will head to Edmonton and take on the Calgary Flames. They play Aug. 1, 3 and 4, and — if needed — are scheduled for the 6 and 8 as well.
Maurice said the Jets' organization has gone "above and beyond" the minimum standards in terms of assuring the safety of players returning to the city, of staff and of the community.
"We have a responsibility, first to our health, I get that, but also we're entertainers, right? People want to watch hockey, they want to see it, so that's our job, and we have a responsibility to do our job."
The league's playoff format in this shortened season gives a bye to the top four teams from each conference. They will go straight to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The next eight teams from each conference will play a best-of-5 series, with the winners advancing to the playoffs. The losing teams will return to their summer break.
The Jets-Flames matchup is the only all-Canadian series of the qualifying round.
The four top teams in each conference will play each other once to determine the order of the seeding for the first round of the playoffs. All playoff series after the qualifiers will be best-of-7.
'Take it out of the garage a little bit slowly'
Following Monday's workout, Maurice said there was some rust on the players but not much.
"We wanted to take it out of the garage a little bit slowly. But the key thing I took away from today is … they wanted to be on the ice. They ran the routes. They did the drill exactly the way it was designed. They had a little bit of fun, they worked hard.
"They look like they want to be here, they look like they want to play."
Fans will not be allowed to attend any of the games but the league has been talking about using recorded crowd noise and even cardboard cutouts of people to fill the empty seats.
Superfan Jeff Baquiran may see a video of himself beamed into the empty rink, lounging outside while carrying a mug in the shape of the Stanley Cup.
He said watching hockey in August may look like it does in that video.
"If it means bringing the TV outside to watch it, so be it, or if I have to sit outside and have the TV in the front window there then whatever it takes," he said.
Winnipeg bars are looking forward to welcoming throngs of Jets fans again.
Ahnissa Martens, assistant general manager at Underdogs, said she knows all the regulars by name and the Jets keep coming up in conversation.
"We have a lot of regular clientele and it is something we talk about all the time, how they miss the Jets," she said.
Martens said she feels their pain, as she's had nothing to watch during the last few months of COVID-19.
"I think it will definitely … be a distraction of everything else that's going on."
Whiteout parties could make a comeback
Though public health officials likely won't want to see thousands of fans storm the streets to cheer on the Jets, Manitoba's Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Brent Roussin said Monday that "there's probably a possibility of having a decent-sized gathering."
Manitoba has gone 13 days in a row without reporting a new case of COVID-19, and the province's active case count is down to one as of Monday morning.
Right now, public health rules only allow up to 100 people to gather together outside. Although, Roussin noted, "you could cohort to get to that maximum of that 30 per cent capacity for the area."
He later said that public health officials are looking at further relaxing the limit on outdoor gathering sizes.
With files from Ian Froese