The Carolina Hurricanes know that this season will be unlike any other. And that starts with a training camp unlike any other.
As with every facet of life amid the COVID-19 pandemic, NHL training camps this year come with safety precautions: protocols such as wearing masks, social distancing and sanitation.
“The intensity is the same,” said Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin. “What we have to get done is heightened just in the sense that we only have eight skates until puck drop, and like I said, no preseason games. So everything’s just heightened and the intensity and making sure we’re getting everything accomplished. It’s different in the sense that we’re getting used to wearing masks in the rink and around the locker room, all the little protocols that we have to go through is different, but we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to be able to play the season.”
One of the other biggest differences between this and past preseason training camps is its length, or lack thereof. After Monday, the Hurricanes now have seven scheduled practices (with one off day) before opening the season at the Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 14.
That means no time to take things slow. The Hurricanes have split their training camp roster into two groups, C1 and C2. One group, which will practice first each day, is mostly made up of prospects/likely AHL players.
The other contains the full NHL group, plus a couple extras, and is already going full bore on preparing for the season, with a fast-paced, high-intensity practice starting things off Monday.
“You can’t ease into this,” said head coach Rod Brind’Amour. “We just don’t have the time. So I look at it, you have eight practices and there’s a day off. You want to try to figure out where you can maybe fit some scrimmages in. There’s just not a lot of time for the teaching aspect. We jump right into it. We’ll make sure we cover everything, because I think that’s important, but there’s no tip toeing into this one. Right out of the gate, I think we’re full go, and I don’t think there’s any other way to do it.”
One challenge presented by this unique situation, with the COVID protocols, is the lack of opportunities for team bonding. Normally, a coaching staff would want its team spending time together away from the rink in order to bond and grow close.
Now, with large gatherings out of the picture due to the pandemic, that bonding process looks different, and the time spent at the rink becomes paramount.
“We’ve talked about that a little bit,” Brind’Amour said. “In the past, you talked about getting together, hanging out and being around each other. Everything that you kind of preached and wanted to see in your guys, actually now, you don’t want to see it. So now, you turn the dressing room and you take the lounges away. You’re doing everything where you want them to hang out, but you can’t. So it’s a challenge to figure out. A huge component of any team is coming together. We’ve got to use our time wisely when we are together here, when we’re on the ice, in our spaced out areas. It’s all about that camaraderie. I think everyone’s trying to figure that out, how we’re going to adjust to that.”
Fortunately for the Hurricanes, this is largely a group that already knows each other. The only notable addition during the offseason was forward Jesper Fast, and 12 forwards, six defensemen and two goalies return from last year’s team.
There won’t be a need for a lengthy bonding process, as this is a team that’s already had those experiences in the past, and is ready to get back to work together.
“It’s a big advantage,” Slavin said. “It would be nice to have some preseason games in there, but everyone knows the systems already. Guys are ready to go, so it’s just bringing those couple guys into the mix and making sure they understand the expectations and everything that we want to accomplish here in the couple days that we could.”
The group getting up to speed on what’s expected and coming together quickly over this short camp will be vital. With the NHL’s regular season reduced to 56 games this year, everyone will need to be ready to go out of the gate.
Each game takes on an added importance, and there’s no room for a slow start.
“Everyone’s in the same boat,” said forward Jordan Staal. “It’s going to be the team that dials it in in practices and makes sure the group’s ready that’s going to have a good start. We’re hoping to be that team and get the ball rolling right away.”
The good news is the Hurricanes have some experience getting off to good starts over the past two seasons, starting 5-0-0 last year and 4-0-1 in the 2018-19 season.
There was a common thread guiding the team to those quick starts, one that will again look to push the team right out of the gate in this unusual season.
“I think that’s partly to do with our coaching staff,” Staal said. “I think Roddy’s done a great job. when you look at practice today, of making sure guys are ready to go. He’s a detailed coach, but at the same time, he demands that execution and that work ethic. So the guys in the room are willing to buy into that. I think that shows right off the bat. Hopefully we can do the same this year.”