It’s back to Canada, finally, for the Islanders this week.
Before COVID-19, of course, heading north of the border to play in their home country was a taken-for-granted occurrence for Canadian-born players on U.S.-based teams. But last season’s pandemic-altered schedule limited travel to within four makeshift divisions, with all seven Canadian teams comprising one of the divisions.
The Islanders will resume their season-opening 13-game road trip in Montreal on Thursday to start a stretch of three games in four nights that also includes a Saturday stop in Winnipeg.
"Yeah, it’s definitely places that are fun to play," Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who grew up in Ottawa, said after the Islanders practiced at Northwell Health Ice Center in East Meadow on Monday.
"I think not only for the Canadian players, but I think for everyone. Just to be able to travel and to be able to go to different places. We’ve been places that we’ve never been in the last year. It’s just fun to be able to travel together and to go out and play."
This three-game stretch, including Sunday’s game in Minnesota, will make it 10 straight opponents the Islanders did not face last season.
The Islanders last played in Canada in August and September of 2020 in playoff bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton during their run to the NHL semifinals. Those games were played without fans and with the players sequestered in hotels, separated from any outside personnel.
U.S.-Canada border restrictions that limited travel for non-essential personnel kept many players living in the U.S. from seeing their families.
"I grew up in Ottawa, all my buddies are Habs fans, so it’s just an extra motivation," said Pageau, who spent seven-plus seasons playing for his hometown Senators. "It’s always fun to go in there. The family is able to come down. My parents are able to come down. Hopefully I’ll be able to see them the day before the game and get on the ice the next day and get a win."
The Islanders have 12 Canadians on their 23-man roster. Anthony Beauvillier is from Sorel-Tracy, Quebec, about an hour outside of Montreal. Coach Barry Trotz was born in Winnipeg and both he and defenseman Ryan Pulock grew up in Dauphin, Manitoba.
"We’re looking at it as we never went to Vegas, we never went to Arizona and places like that [last season]," Trotz said. "We just look at it as it’s another experience we’re going through. Obviously, a great tradition in Montreal and we’re really excited to visit. Our group is pretty focused on we’ve got to get two points on the road.
"To me, it’s a really important trip. You’re going into Montreal, and a back-to-back, Winnipeg and Minnesota, that are both quite strong. Then you have all the stuff at the border now, restrictions. It’ll be a good test for us. We’ve got to make good on the back-to-backs."