MONTREAL — It was during a 58-minute conference call Tuesday that Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Julien spelled out a reality few — if any — of hockey’s power brokers are willing to publicly acknowledge at this juncture of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
“We’re talking about a virus and something that is spreading. It’s not a one-and-done kind of thing,” the 59-year-old started from his Ontario-based cottage. “There’s a lot of unknowns, a lot of question marks… You think about when (hockey) comes back, what’s going to happen fan-wise? Are people going to be comfortable enough to sit next to each other? And I don’t think that’s going to happen until this thing is totally under control where there’s no fear. But if it’s kind of under control and not totally under control, how comfortable are you going to feel sitting next to somebody in an arena that you don’t know? Those kinds of things are things that you think about.”
They are the kinds of things most of us are thinking, but things that have largely gone unsaid by members of the NHL and NHLPA who continue to work towards potential solutions for a resumption of the 2019-20 season.
It’s understandable. So long as there’s a window to award the Stanley Cup before moving on to the next season, the league and its members will continue to volley hypotheticals and exhaust every imaginable option; they will keep hope alive as best they can and avoid any talk that diminishes it.
Not that anyone should think Julien was speaking out of turn in raising these questions and expressing he’s personally uncomfortable with anyone taking on any unnecessary risk.
“I like to be positive, but realistic,” he said.
The coach was also quick to explain that he wants NHL hockey to return as soon as possible.
Obviously, Julien’s not alone in that sentiment.
“I think what people want — they want to see sports,” Julien said. “And again, it’s not just hockey; we’re talking basketball, baseball, football, and all the different sports. And I know I’m leaving some out, but they want to see those things. So, one way or another you’re going to want to get back to your sport. People are going to want the sports to get back to doing their things once everything is safe. And whether it’s watching it on TV to start with, who knows? I think there’s a lot of unknown and I think we’ll only know that once we move forward here and see where we’re going with this virus.”
As Julien waits for conditions to change and for normal life to be enabled, he’s spending his days pouring over video, he’s continuing to hold individual conversations with his players and members of his coaching staff, he’s exchanging ideas on conference calls with coaches Jon Cooper, Barry Trotz, Peter DeBoer and Mike Babcock among others, and he’s spending precious time with his family that he’d otherwise be deprived of if hockey were currently in full swing.
“Usually when I get family time, whether it’s in the summer or even during the season, there’s always something going on,” Julien said. “Your kids are in sports and you’re running around here and there, so it’s extremely difficult just to have a family dinner. It’s incredible — I can’t remember the last time we had this much time to sit at a table and just have dinner together and see the meal through to completion.
“It’s giving us a chance to see what we’ve somewhat forgotten about or what we’ve missed. I’m sure this situation will give us the chance to reflect on many things once we get through it. All those things are going through our minds, and for the time being I’m trying to focus on the positive of the situation while staying safe and hoping this gets resolved as quickly as possible.”
Julien added that, with the pause extending through May, injured Canadiens players Tomas Tatar (upper body) and Victor Mete (broken ankle) should be rehabilitated and ready to play once hockey returns.
He also said Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who suffered a spleen injury in early March, was healthy enough to return home to Finland. Julien confirmed the 19-year-old is currently resting and recuperating in Pori.
And when he was asked how the rest of his players are handling this break, he reminded that they’re creatures of habit who will take appropriate action to keep themselves in shape.
“All the players have spoken with our conditioning coach and they’ve all been given programs to follow,” he said. “The majority of players are well-equipped enough at home to keep themselves in good shape. Whether they have exercise bikes or weights, there’s a program in place for all players to do what they have to do.”
Julien also said he has assurances that teams will be given the opportunity to hold an abbreviated training camp of sorts and get their players back up to speed before the NHL resumes games.
On the possibility of the Canadiens being included in a tournament of sorts for a chance to win the 2020 Cup, Julien said he’d relish that opportunity.
“But for me, the most important thing is that we get this virus under control first and foremost,” he said. “After it’s managed in a way that’s safe — and it has to be safe for everyone — I’m open to whatever solution the NHL thinks is best.”