Canadiens return to play for opening day of camp, but not to normalcy

Sportsnet’s Eric Engels explains why the Montreal Canadiens decided to bring Alexander Romanov to Phase 3 camp and burn a year of his entry-level contract.

BROSSARD, Que. — They came from near and far, from downtown Montreal and La Prairie, Que., from various other parts of Canada, and from Finland, Sweden, Slovakia and the United States. They gathered under one roof, on one clean sheet of ice, and for a practice that was so fast, crisp, energetic and intense you’d have thought it was taking place mid-season—and not in mid-July.

It was as if it was a normal day at the Montreal Canadiens’ south-shore practice facility, a day for hockey, a day like so many before it in this city and in this particular place.

But to say it felt that way for anyone involved would be bending the truth.

“I think as far as getting on ice and practising — yeah, that felt normal,” said Canadiens captain Shea Weber. “But I don’t think any of the rest feels normal.”

How could this feel normal? A training camp for a team to prepare for a Stanley Cup tournament it didn’t earn its way into; a training camp happening in the summer, in the midst of a heatwave and with a pandemic changing nearly every aspect of the experience, except for the drills on the ice, is anything but normal.

If it was strange for the coaches and players, it was just the same for media who showed up one-by-one, placed their masks over their faces, had their temperatures checked, filled out medical forms and then set themselves up at designated tables stationed six feet apart from each other.

We logged into an 11:30 a.m. Zoom press conference with Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin and it was interrupted several times by technological blips and feedback.

To be expected? Of course.

Normal? Not even close.

But it’s what we’ve got for now, and it’s what we’ll likely have for the foreseeable future.

Near the end of Bergevin’s call, Canadiens coaches and players filed onto the ice.

But not all of them.

Defencemen Brett Kulak, Xavier Ouellet and Josh Brook — players who participated in informal skates in Brossard during Phase 2 of the NHL’s return-to-play protocol — were notably absent. And for reasons undisclosed due to the NHL’s new injury/illness disclosure policy.

Granted, a report from The Athletic on Sunday stipulated three Canadiens players had tested positive for COVID-19. The report was later updated on Monday to say that two of them were false positives. It would be a reasonable assumption those three players were Kulak, Ouellet and Brook.

But with no confirmation from the players, the team nor the league, Kulak, Ouellet and Brook were simply labeled “unable to practise.”

Also absent was Max Domi, the 25-year-old centre who has type-1 diabetes and celiac disease.

Bergevin said Domi elected — after two weeks’ worth of discussion with the team, the league, his agent and medical professionals — to stay home in Toronto and wait seven to 10 days before deciding whether or not it’ll be safe for him to participate in training camp and in the games that will follow come late-July, early-August.

“We want to do this the right way with Max,” Bergevin said. “We’re confident he’ll be here, but it’ll be a decision made by the experts and Max together, and we’ll choose what’s best for him.”

As for Alexander Romanov, the Russian prospect the Canadiens drafted 38th overall in 2018 and signed to a three-year, entry-level contract Monday morning: he’ll sort through immigration issues and make his way to Montreal, where he’ll quarantine for seven days and then hopefully join the Canadiens on the ice in Brossard.

Romanov will be permitted to burn the first year of his contract, he’ll be permitted to practise in Phase 3 (if the timing lines up accordingly), and he’ll be permitted to travel with the Canadiens as one of their 31 roster players going to Toronto later this month as part of Phase 4.

But Romanov cannot play in the games, which begged the question as to why Bergevin elected to get him under contract now.

“Just as a former player, you go into your first NHL training camp and you come back the next year and it’s night and day,” said the GM who played 19 seasons in the league from 1984-2004. “You’ve just already been there, you’ve been around the players, you’ve been around the staff and (that’s) something that (you can’t put a value on).

“We were able to do that and we didn’t hesitate on that… It’s just with the uncertainty (of when the next NHL season would start, and with Romanov having the option to not sign with Montreal and instead continue playing in Russia), he wanted be here and he was willing to come and we welcome him with open arms… In the long run, it’s going to help him tremendously.”

With that settled, we focused on what was happening on the ice.

Practice unfolded at a frenetic pace. The Canadiens spent the first 50 minutes jumping from drill to drill, with the intensity seemingly ratcheting up with each passing second.

Line combinations were apparent from the start, and four goaltenders rotated in and out of nets at both ends throughout.

Then practice broke, Weber led the team in a stretch, and some casual passing and shooting resumed for 10 minutes before the ice cleared.

It was your standard NHL practice day. Sort of…

“It’s a weird atmosphere with all the rules, regulations, and masks,” said Canadiens assistant captain Paul Byron during his joint zoom conference with Weber. “But that’s to keep us all safe, right?

“It’s bizarre. I think I saw yesterday that everyone here in Quebec has to wear a mask when they go out in public, but when we go on the ice it’s like nothing’s changed in the world for us.”

Were the players concerned about whether or not we’d even get to this point?

Of course they were.

“Honestly, I’ve wondered every day whether or not this would work,” said Byron. “A lot of things are happening outside of the ice that we don’t have control over.”

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The 31-year-old forward had been contemplating all of that from his south-shore home, where he lives year round with his wife and two children.

Weber, who summers in Kelowna, B.C., talked about how strange it’s been to be away from his family for the last two weeks — his wife and children didn’t travel back to Montreal with him — and how difficult that part of it might be moving forward.

“It’s been tough,” said the 34-year-old.

But Weber signed off on returning to play because, as he put it, “This is an opportunity we have to take advantage of.”

“Playing in the league for 14, 15 years now, you learn that you don’t take these opportunities for granted,” Weber added. “They don’t always come.

“We’ve still got to get in (to the playoffs), we still have a tough road ahead of us, a long road, but it’s an opportunity we likely wouldn’t have had three months ago.”

The Canadiens were 10 points out of a playoff spot with 11 games remaining when the NHL season was paused on Mar. 12. Nothing has been normal since.

But we’re pressing on.

“The NHL—we’ve been through (Phases) 1, 2 and 3 and obviously there will be 4—they’re going above and beyond for the safety of the players,” said Bergevin. “They did not make that decision based only on them; they had experts looking at everything and the term bubble is very protective.

“There could be some outbreaks, it’s always possible. But they went above and beyond to make sure everyone is okay and safe, and it’s been put in the protocol. The players will follow that and hopefully we could move on and be in the hub cities on July 26.”

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