For players and coaches, Phases 3 and 4 of the NHL’s return-to-play plan represents an unprecedented challenge. After four months of inaction, 24 teams will have two weeks of training camp before heading to one of the two hub cities, where they will continue to practice and play two exhibition games each before beginning the qualifying round on Aug. 1.
And all of it will happen in a hyper-controlled environment none of them have ever experienced before.
Nothing from their past can prepare them for what they are about to embark on. But if you take the public health questions out of the equation — a big ask, granted — you realize that the conditions are somewhat similar to what we’ve seen in the past in international tournaments.
This is why we asked three coaches with considerable international tournament experience to identify the key elements of preparing a team under these unique conditions.
At first glance, it might seem like going from zero to 60 in such a short period will be problematic for players. But André Tourigny, one of the best junior coaches in Canada and a veteran of several international competitions with Hockey Canada, notes that this is a challenge many of the top players have already conquered at the World Cup.
“Guys came back from their summers and went directly into the World Cup,” said Tourigny, head coach of the Ottawa 67’s in the OHL. “What’s important is the mindset. When they got the World Cup, they were ready, they knew what they were getting into and that’s why it worked.”
But how exactly do you get ready?
“You need to go full speed in practice right away,” said Buffalo Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger, who coached Team Europe in the 2016 World Cup. “Probably the single most important thing is to find a way to get the high gear going in practice. They’re going to have three weeks here to get up to speed for the games, and to be able to do that, you’ve got to make sure of the processes — activation off-ice, on the way to practice, what they’re doing physically, and then post-practice, how you regenerate — to sustain a high level.
“You also have to find a balance and don’t stay out on the ice too long. It’s about quality and not quantity, and you’ve got to hit that quality, because if you go too hard, the guys might hit a low exactly when you start playing on the 1st of August. They might have a dip there, and it’s tricky. Trust me, I did 17 big tournaments in my life, and it’s tricky to time that perfectly.”
Everyone is fully conscious of the injury risk when ramping up the physical intensity in a short period. Whether it’s through the Catapult wearable technology commonly used across the league or other tech, teams have gathered a wealth of information on the load capacities of each of their players and the optimal volume of training required to get them performing at their peak. This will be the fundamental difference between this training camp and one held at the beginning of the season, because instead of trying to incorporate new players and working with a different group starting at zero, all the players preparing to play will be known by their teams, and they have all the necessary data to help manage their workloads.
“One of the things I learned a lot about in the Premier League is the use of sports science and the opportunities we have now, compared to even just a decade ago, to monitor players and to track their state,” said Krueger, who was president of Southampton F.C. prior to returning to the NHL as a coach. “You need to be very closely connected not only with your fitness team but with the sports science information that you’re getting.”
Ken Hitchcock also sees the similarities between this situation and a World Cup scenario, but he looks more at the 2004 event, where he was an associate coach under Pat Quinn for Team Canada. Not only were players coming back from their summers that year, but the spectre of a work stoppage loomed large over that tournament. Therefore, the players didn’t know when they would play again after the tournament. Even though the NHL released a calendar of events leading to the start of 2020-21 season, the pandemic looms even larger today than did the 2004 lockout.
Hitchcock, however, warned of ramping things up too quickly in training camp.
“The intensity of the practice is going to be there anyways, because you’ve got 30 guys, so you’re going to have a lot of energy,” said Hitchcock, a career coach who serves as a consultant for the Edmonton Oilers. “But we found we had to be careful on the emotional side because if you got revved up too quick, guys either got hurt at practice or guys were burnt out and beat up before the first game.”
The mental side
The players overwhelmingly approved the NHL/NHLPA return-to-play protocol and collective bargaining agreement extension with nearly 79 percent support, and it is expected that very few of them will opt out of the tournament. Hockey’s team-first culture will make it so players who have doubts or concerns are likely to park them so as not to let down their teammates. But that doesn’t change the fact that not everyone is thrilled with this return-to-play formula and some are concerned about their life inside the bubble.
In a sport where the ones who want it most often come out on the winning end, is there a risk that some teams won’t be hungry enough because the conditions they are playing in diminish their enthusiasm?
“I think that really falls on the leaders,” Hitchcock said. “The teams that have strong leadership, they won’t allow that to happen, there’s too much at stake … They look at this as a great window of opportunity; their teams are healthy, and they’re not going to let that slide.”
Coaching in chaos
The biggest paradox of the play-in round — and it might extend into the first round of the playoffs — is the juxtaposition of the normal chaos we see at the beginning of the regular season against the extreme intensity of the postseason. Defensive systems will be shaky, there will be more goals, but at the same time, the desire to win will be at its maximum.
Here again, the World Cup parallel is highly relevant.
“At the ’04 World Cup for us, the execution didn’t match the intensity,” Hitchcock said. “So there was a lot of chaos. And you had to learn to coach in the chaos because the intensity level was through the roof in those games.
“The team that has their game out there the quickest is going to …” he added, without finishing his thought. “Because momentum is everything, especially in a best-of-five series. You’ve got to find a way to get your team playing well right off the bat; you don’t want to be playing catch up and try to find your game when the playoffs start.”
Under normal circumstances, the price for playing in the playoffs is surviving an 82-game grind that leaves scars, Tourigny says. This time, however, there are no battle scars.
“The mental grind won’t be there, so I think that will allow them to put on a good show in terms of intensity,” said Tourigny, a former assistant coach with the Colorado Avalanche and Ottawa Senators. “But when you have 82 games to smooth things out, eliminate mistakes and find consistency, that’s what makes for intense, very tight playoff hockey. We won’t have that here. There will be a lot of mistakes and play will be different from what we usually see in the playoffs.”
Knowing your opponent and … yourselves
Whether we’re talking about the Stanley Cup Playoffs or international tournaments, we have never seen a situation where teams have known their opponents so far in advance as this year. At this point, for example, Montreal Canadiens head coach Claude Julien and his assistants must know everything there is to know about the Pittsburgh Penguins, including what type of deodorant Zach Aston-Reese uses.
“You can never get too much information, as much as you can get is great,” Julien said, noting that he and his staff will want to avoid overloading their players with information. Not only does he want to avoid his team arriving in Toronto with their minds bursting at the seams, but in a condensed best-of-five qualifying round, the players won’t have much time to think.
“We feel we’re well prepared, now it’s just a matter of minimizing the stuff and going after the important things that we think will make a difference in that series, and that’s kind of the approach we’re taking right now,” Julien said.
But what to make of everything the coaches learned about their own teams by rewatching regular-season games? An argument can easily be made that after four months off, with everyone rested and healthy, there is a limit to what kind of conclusions you can draw based on games that in no way reflect the current realities.
“It’s a new season,” Tourigny said. “Some guys will find new confidence. For others, it might be the opposite; everything they were doing was working, and suddenly that magic is gone. You have to approach it like a new season, a new start to a 24-team race.”
On that point, not all the coaches agree.
“Every team has developed a culture of sorts in those 69 games, and I’m sure that coaches are going to try to continue the story,” Krueger said. “It’s like you’ve hit pause in a movie; it’s not a new movie, but at the same time, there’s going to be a lot of different physical components. You’re going to have a full roster initially, there will be injuries in the process that you have to calculate with. … But it’s certainly going to be the coaches that can get this right that will have an edge.”
Hitchcock feels a team is what it is, and no prolonged absence — especially one with little or no significant personnel changes — will change that.
What might change, however, is how the depth players are used.
“A lot of the depth players are younger guys, and some of these guys are going to push for work,” Hitchcock said. “Because they’ve matured, they’ve had four more months of growth. I think you’re going to see some teams come into the competition not with the same lineup, they’re going to have a different lineup because when they start their camp, they’re going to see that some of the younger players have really grown and improved, and they might push veteran players out of a job because they’re more physically mature than they were when the season stopped.”
Which brings us to …
Hitchcock thinks young players who took advantage of this time to add muscle might look at this postseason as a career springboard and arrive at camp more motivated than ever. For some, getting that much closer to a level of physical maturity that was previously lacking could allow them to take a step up.
“Four months is a lifetime,” Hitchcock said.
In that sense, it will be fascinating to see if coaches will still look at rookies as first-year players, as if this is actually a continuation of the 2019-20 season, or if they’ll be prepared to give them more responsibility by treating them like second-year players.
“A player who lacks experience didn’t gain more just because we’re starting a new season,” Tourigny said. “What made you a rookie was a lack of experience. I don’t know anyone who added experience during COVID. Those who have never played in the playoffs or those who’ve played in them once or those who have never won a round in the playoffs, nothing has changed for them. It’s the same thing.
“The day you realize you have more experience in your job and you stop making the same mistakes, it doesn’t come when you’ve realized it, it comes when you’ve done it. … The younger players definitely had some time to take a step back — the older players might have, too — they will have ripened a little, thought about certain things, but there’s no guarantee.”
Establishing a routine
As soon as teams arrive in Toronto or Edmonton, they will need to establish a routine based on their game schedule as soon as possible.
“Let’s say you’re a noon game and that’s your first game,” Hitchcock said. “That’s the game you’ve got to prepare for. You can’t worry about what happens after that. But you don’t want the noon game to pop its head off and you’re not mentally and physically ready for it, so it’s really important that you prepare for the first game and then take it from there once you get into the routine.
“Life for the players is going to be pretty routine; it’s like living in an Olympic village, and it is a very simple life they’re going to live for a period of time there.”
The days may be long, but Julien suspects that with practices, games, rest and team meals, downtime will be less abundant than people might think.
“Once we find out where and the setup and everything else, I think it’s going to be important for us to prepare some stuff for the guys so that it doesn’t get boring, it doesn’t get monotonous,” said Julien, who was an assistant coach for Team Canada alongside Hitchcock at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. “We’ve got to do some things here that will allow them to stay fresh and well-rested.”
Coaching in an empty — and quiet — rink
Coaches with Olympic or world championship experience might have a bit of edge managing games in empty rinks. It often happens in international competition in games other than those involving the host team. All of a sudden, you can no longer talk on the bench the same way you would in an NHL game when there’s no ambient noise.
“We’re quite used to yelling down to the D coach, or over to the forwards coach, or to talk about which line is up,” said Krueger, who was the longtime coach of the Swiss national team. “Even just saying ‘Eichel, you’re up,’ the guy standing on the glass on the other side is going to hear that. What we learned in those quiet environments was a lot of quieter communication, sometimes just tapping guys on the back of the shoulder instead of actually saying their names, because teams were always trying to steal your lineup that was coming up or D pairs that were coming up.”
Krueger can still remember the 2007 world championships in Moscow, where the tickets were so overpriced that other than the games Russia was playing, there would be no more than 1,000 people in the stands. He knows of what he speaks.
“As far as giving directives on a strategic stance, you almost can’t,” he said. “You can’t say out loud ‘we’re going to make this adjustment on the forecheck.’ You almost have to say it in little groups of three. It’s strange.
“It’s not a huge issue, but you definitely cannot behave in the way that you usually would on the bench.”
With empty seats everywhere, Krueger wondered, why wouldn’t the assistant coach who is normally in the press box sit 10 or 12 rows behind the bench to get a better view? That would allow him to share his observations at stoppages in play or during television timeouts.
“I know one thing,” Hitchcock said. “Anybody watching on TV, you’re going to be picking up a lot of strategy because you’re going to hear things on the bench that in a normal hockey game you can’t hear at all.
“And that’s going to be fascinating.”
Playing in an empty — and quiet — rink
Tourigny brought up an interesting point in terms of the mental preparation players might need to play in such an unfamiliar environment.
“Playing without fans will be really unique for those guys,” he said. “For most of them, it’s been years since they played in front of a small crowd. You make a nice play and no one is standing up to cheer you on. That’s not something these guys are used to.
“Some players draw motivation from the crowd, and there’s nothing negative in that. Some draw motivation purely within themselves, but some need the crowd’s energy. For them, this is going to be a completely different challenge.”
What can a coach do to counter this?
A superstar like Alex Ovechkin uses a building’s energy to fuel him, but Washington Capitals coach Todd Reirden isn’t about to use him less because no one’s around to provide that fuel. A coach has to lean on his horses. Being able to find that extra ounce of motivation intrinsically, with no outside influence other than the competition, falls under a player’s responsibilities, not a coach’s. Perhaps some sports psychologists will need to address this issue in the next few days.
According to Krueger, who has been watching the return of Premier League soccer with great interest, the players there found it very strange to return in empty stadiums but quickly adjusted to their new reality.
“It’s something that I’ve noticed in Europe; the football/soccer teams that have been winning, there’s a higher percentage of skilled teams that are winning their games,” Krueger said. “The ones that used to have the building that you hated to go to, like Burnley in the Premier League; nobody wants to play in Burnley, it’s just a tough place to play, the people are all over you, and it’s cold and it’s windy. All of those conditions are suddenly gone for Burnley.”
If the same thing happens in hockey, the skilled players might have a greater advantage than the more physical ones, the so-called energy guys who have often risen to the forefront come playoff time over the years.
“Being a physical player is a skill, too, it’s an important skill, but it’s one that takes more energy and takes more pump and power and motivation,” Krueger said. “So as coaches, you would have to make sure that you really are behind those guys and pushing them. They need more inspiration probably than your higher-skilled players, and that would be something that you’d have to be really conscious of. Because they are the ones that feed off the crowd and feed off the energy of the building a little bit more maybe than the players that just have more natural skill.”
Basically, if Krueger is right, this is not the year we will see a Fernando Pisani or a Dave Bolland become a household name.
Any preconceived ideas we have about the playoffs can be put aside this year. Who knows? Perhaps a new breed of player will emerge and show himself capable of excelling in these unknown conditions.
But for the teams taking part in the qualification round, a good part of that series will begin long before the puck is dropped for the opening faceoff. The coaches, perhaps more than ever, will play a big part in deciding who moves on and who goes home.