Johnny Boychuk’s left eye is close to fully recovered and the Islanders defenseman plans to be back on the ice Thursday for the first time since the team practiced in Calgary on March 11.
The NHL paused its season the next day in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Boychuk returned to Edmonton with his family about two weeks later, where he’s continued to train off-ice and recover from needing 90 stitches and plastic surgery after being cut by the skate blade of the Canadiens’ Artturi Lehkonen on March 3.
“All I can do is prepare like we’re going to play and, if it does happen, I’m going to be ready,” Boychuk told Newsday in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “If we don’t play, I already have a leg up for next season.”
Phase 2 of the NHL’s return-to-play format began Monday with team facilities allowed to open for small-group workouts without coaches. The Islanders have had groups of players skating at the Northwell Health Ice Center in East Meadow since Monday.
But there is no set date for Phase 3, the start of formal training camps, which would not open until July 10, at the earliest, or Phase 4, the resumption of games. Boychuk said he will remain in Edmonton for now and plans to skate five times a week.
“My eye seems to be almost like 100 percent,” Boychuk said. “There’s going to be a little bit of discomfort, but not much. Nothing to have me worried about being on the ice again.”
Boychuk said he will wear his usual face shield on the ice, not a full cage. He said had the season continued, he likely would have missed only another three games.
The NHL’s return-to-play format – which still needs final details to be worked out between the league and the NHL Players’ Association – has the seventh-seeded Islanders facing the 10th-seeded Florida Panthers in a best-of-five qualifying series to earn a berth in the 16-team playoffs.
Twelve teams from each conference will be sequestered at separate, to-be-determined hub cities. Edmonton is one of the candidates.
“Our group handles things pretty good when going through adversity,” Boychuk said. “When we do start up, if we do start up, I think we’ll be in good shape and I think we’ll do really well. We’ll have a long time to prepare for them, that might be helpful as well. We’ll be practicing as if we’re playing against them.”
Boychuk said it would “definitely be different” playing all the games at a neutral hub city while trying to stay safe from coronavirus.
“At the end of the day, this is what we do for a living,” Boychuk said. “To get a chance to win the Stanley Cup, of course you’d want to win it. You want to play but you want to be safe as well.”
The NHL players will be limited to their hotel, the arena or practice rink. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman estimated 25,000-30,000 COVID-19 tests will wind up being administered.
“I hope so,” Boychuk said when asked whether he’d feel safe. “But you never know. I’ve seen that there are other leagues that have opened and there’s been outbreaks because of it. It’s tough to say anything about health issues. You just don’t know. Nobody knows.”
For now, Boychuk is just looking forward to being back on the ice on Thursday.
“It’s going to be really nice,” Boychuk said. “The first couple of skates aren’t going to be really hard, I’ll just get back into moving the legs and getting a feel for it. By the end of next week, I’ll get back into skating shape.”