NHL players have gone through unexpectedly long hiatuses before. Owners’ lockouts reduced the 1994-95 and 2012-13 seasons to 48 games each and wiped out all of 2004-05.
Players could always find ice time during those stoppages, though, either in small groups or individually. That is not the case during the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the NHL to pause its season on March 12. And that lack of on-ice training could be a major hurdle if the NHL is ever given the green light to resume this season.
The only timeline right now is that President Donald Trump has extended the social-distancing guidelines in the U.S. through April 30. But players might not be able to skate until well after that.
“During the lockout, everyone was skating the whole time, so that’s why it was only a 10-day training camp before you played the first game,” said former Devils captain Andy Greene, who was traded to the Islanders on Feb. 16. “With the social-distancing going until the end of April, that’s going to be at least six, seven weeks without even touching the ice.
“It’s one thing to be able to get into game shape fairly quickly when you’ve been on the ice in the summer and you’re able to mimic workouts and skate,” said Greene, who entered the NHL in 2007. “This is almost like starting over.”
Players will typically stay off skates for at least a month — sometimes longer — when a normal season concludes, then spend the rest of the offseason slowly building that skating strength back up for the start of training camp.
The NHL extended its self-quarantine period for players through April 15, so the players essentially are trying to stay in shape through whatever equipment they have at home. Rollerblades or slide boards are essentially the only substitutes for skating, other than for the fortunate few who still have access to frozen outdoor ponds or homemade backyard rinks in chillier climates.
Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock posted a video message to fans while on skates in Dauphin, Manitoba.
Team facilities are closed, but the NHL has made an exception for injured players who need access for rehab. For instance, the Blue Jackets’ Seth Jones, out since Feb. 8 because of an ankle injury, recently posted a video of him skating at the team’s practice rink.
“I got a treadmill and some small stuff here at the house, and that’s kind of all you’re privy to,” Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. “You can’t use the facility. You can’t skate. There’s nothing that replicates skating. It definitely affects you when you can’t use the facilities. You can’t use the gym. Your options are pretty limited. But everyone in our position’s been doing this a very long time, so everyone knows how to handle it and do it their own way.”
The concern, of course, is that the lack of skating could lead to injuries if and when the season is able to resume.
“One of the key concerns as an agent is the health and safety of the players with regard to the structure of protocols on a return to play,” California-based agent Allan Walsh said. “If we play again this season, the vast majority of NHL players will have been off skates for several months before participating in a ‘mini-training camp.’ I’m gravely concerned how this translates into a return to action. Most players are in self-quarantine with little access to the fitness equipment used in offseason training regimens. Are we going to see a spate of soft tissue groin and hamstring injuries, ankle and knee injuries, when and if the season resumes?”
Islanders coach Barry Trotz said: “That’s why there’s going to have to be a set parameter on time for players so you’re able to not put the players in peril. A lot of the training coaches have designed a lot of their programs to help the core muscles and groin muscles that can help the prevention of that. But nothing emulates skating like skating.”
But Trotz’s boss, Islanders president and general manager Lou Lamoriello, said, “it won’t take them that long to get back in skating shape” because the athletes are well-conditioned.
Former Rangers captain Dave Maloney, whose NHL career spanned from 1974 to 1985 and who now is part of both the team’s radio and television broadcasting crews, agreed that the modern hockey player is light years ahead of players from his era in terms of year-round training.
“Carol Vadnais used to say he’d put a nail in his skates the day the season was over and pull the nail out the first day of training camp,” Maloney said of his former Rangers teammate. “Which was about right. Guys never skated [in the summer].
“As far as getting back up to speed again, it’s so dramatically different now with the conditioning and the nutrition,” Maloney added. “They’ll kind of ease into it and it won’t take that long. That’s my impression, anyway.”