With a shot at the Stanley Cup, Habs happily adjust to COVID protocols

The Montreal Canadiens seem willing to upend their lives during the pandemic for a shot at the Stanley Cup.

Players obeying strict protocols while training in Brossard

Montreal Canadiens head coach Claude Julien, centre, flanked by assistant coaches Kirk Muller, left, and Domenic Ducharme, right, keep an eye on practice Monday in Brossard. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

There are moments when it feels like a normal day at the rink.

The Montreal Canadiens players file onto the ice one by one, head coach Claude Julien blows his whistle, and the ice chips start flying.

But it's only possible to suspend reality and live in this feeling of normalcy for so long because the hard facts are there is nothing normal about this Montreal Canadiens training camp.

For starters, it's July. Hockey players are supposed to be hunting birdies on a golf course not at a rink covered up in face masks, following arrows taped onto the floor and talking to journalists over Zoom.

"As far as getting on the ice and practising, that felt normal but I don't think any of the rest feels normal," said Canadiens captain Shea Weber after the team's first full practice this week.

Hockey players often talk about the sacrifice and work required to win the Stanley Cup.

This summer that resolve is being tested like never before as they are being asked to leave their families and enter a secure bubble for the duration of their quest.

"I've been playing in the league for 14, 15 years now, and you learn that you don't take these opportunities for granted. They don't always come," said Weber, who left his family behind in B.C.

Montreal Canadiens captain Shea Weber skates during the first team practice Monday, in Brossard, Que. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Danault changes his tone

In April, Habs forward Phillip Danault told reporters that he strongly objected to any return-to-play plan that would require him to be separated from his family for months.

"It's inhumane to do that, as far as I'm concerned," Danault said on April 28.

On Wednesday, he walked those comments back.

"On the day when I said that, we weren't in the playoffs. We were talking about finishing the last 10 games." Danault said.

"But now we're in the playoffs so it's a different game, and I'm definitely pumped to go there and embrace the challenge."

It appears a legitimate shot at playing for the Stanley Cup changed everything for Danault.

When the league went on pause the Habs were limping toward the end of the season with only a mathematical chance left to reach the playoffs.

The NHL's return-to-play tournament plan puts them into an elimination round against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"It's a different kind of training camp," said Danault's teammate, Tomas Tatar.

"But just the excitement about the playoffs, that's kind of pushing you forward."

Getting to the bubble in good health is priority

Until the Canadiens travel to Toronto and enter the league's secure bubble on July 26 they will be practising in Brossard.

At the rink they're subject to strict protocols, but once they leave, they're free to do as they please and mingle with the local population.

An outbreak among the players at this point could end their participation in the return-to-play tournament before it even begins.

"There's a huge trust factor," said Weber.

"Obviously we're not in the bubble yet. Guys have the ability to make their own decisions, but the decisions affect each and every one of us, so it's a crucial time to make sure we're paying attention and making sure we're taking care of each other here."

Coach Julien said his players are in better physical shape than he expected after several months off, which is another sign the players are taking this unique opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup seriously.

"I can honestly say that we were pleasantly surprised," Julien said. "We are further ahead than what we had anticipated two months ago when we first looked at it."

It's early but the Habs seem genuinely happy to be back together.

It feels like a group that is champing at the bit to make up for the disappointing season they left behind when the league went on pause in March.

So what if it's not a normal day at the rink? That seems to suit this group of players just fine.

WATCH | How Douglas Gelevan is covering the Canadiens during the pandemic

Covering the Habs during a pandemic

2 years ago
Duration 2:14
The Montreal Canadiens are back in Brossard to train ahead of their series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. CBC Montreal's Douglas Gelevan shows us what it's like covering the team during a pandemic.


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