COLUMBUS (WCMH) — It’s a simple concept, but a complicated process to get there.
The NHL wants to finish its season, and players want to play for a Stanley Cup. But facing unprecedented health concerns, players and team owners are proceeding with caution.
“This is a very serious virus, this pandemic we’re going through. We’re not just going to step on the ice and pretend like nothing’s going on.” Blue Jackets’ captain Nick Foligno said Wednesday during a teleconference with reporters. “It’s nice to see that they’re taking it as seriously as we all realize it is, but we trust what they’re telling us . . . we feel comfortable in that environment to come back and play.”
Foligno and Jackets’ General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen took questions about the playoff format, the CBJ readiness for that playoff and the hunger players have to earn a Stanley Cup, despite the circumstances.
“13 years in the league and it’s a chance to win the Stanley Cup,” Foligno said. “If there’s a reasonable and safe way to play the game, then why would you not want to give yourself an opportunity to chase the ultimate dream of a Stanley Cup championship? I think every guy on our team feels that way.”
Whenever players and the league agree on a health and safety plan, the league will move to phase two of its return-to-play plan, which allows players to return to team facilities for individual workouts. That would last through the month of June, with a phase three training camp beginning no sooner than July 1.
“I don’t have a lot of concerns because I think we have adequate time here to get everybody ready,” Kekalainen said. “They’re all professional athletes so even if they didn’t have their gear, they are physically preparing themselves to be ready and combining phase two and phase three there’s going to be plenty of time to get ready.”
Many Jackets players have not skated since the NHL shutdown began March 12. Players like Foligno have been conditioning at home, anticipating a restart to the season. He says the training camp will be critical to make up for lost time.
“The skating and everything comes back pretty quickly, but it’s the team mindset, the system play, where you need to be,” Foligno said. “I mean that’s only stuff you can really get when you’re doing the reps over and over again.”
The Jackets will face Toronto in a best-of-five opening round of the 24-team playoff. All the competing teams expect to get a couple exhibition games before the playoff would begin.
“It’s a great team we are playing against and it’s a reason why it’s going to make for an exciting format for me to get back to playing here,” Foligno said. “We’re not used to playing short series like that, so the advantage is going to be huge if you can get out on top early. That’s going to be a mindset of ours.”
Columbus expects to get several injured stars back in its lineup whenever the playoffs start. All-Star defenseman Seth Jones along with Oliver Bjorkstrand, Alexandre Texier and Dean Kukan will likely all play despite being on injured reserve in March.
Kekalainen says forward Josh Anderson may still not be ready and forward Brandon Dubinsky will not be available.
“Now, it’s time to put all we’ve learned this year to good use and not waste it,” Foligno said. “My expectations are even higher now and that’s the way it should be. If we’re going to get healthier, then the bar gets raised.”
Wednesday, the NHL announced Columbus is one of ten cities under consideration to serve as one of two hub cities for the playoff. While fans will not be permitted at the games, a host city would welcome the teams and the worldwide attention the games would provide. Kekalainen says that decision is now in the NHL’s hands, but he’s proud of the facilities available in Columbus.
“We should have a pretty good chance considering all the criteria required to be a hub city,” Kekalainen said. “I think we meet all of them and we’re hoping that we will be one of them.”
The NHL says it will wait a few weeks to make a decision because they plan to monitor the cities for changes in COVID-19 diagnoses and potential “hot spots.”
Foligno says he’s bothered by critics saying the 2020 NHL season will have an asterisk beside it because of the highly unusual season and path to the championship.
“A Stanley Cup championship is a Stanley Cup championship in my eyes and nobody can take that away from you,” Foligno said. “You still have to go through four rounds . . . it’ll be a great story to tell one day.”