For hockey fans at large, the NHL’s Return to Play Plan granted a glimmer of hope, a roadmap that showed the path back to some sense of normalcy, even if much still has to happen before the league can embark upon it.
But for the 24 clubs set to participate in the playoff tournament should the league be permitted to resume its campaign, the announcement also did something else — it set in motion the organizational wheels that must turn to get players ready and prepared to safely return to action down the line.
A safe return involves more than just protection from COVID-19. There is, for example, the matter of getting players’ bodies ready to jump directly into the grind of playoff hockey. And, according to Arizona Coyotes general manager John Chayka, there’s also the mental grind to consider, an aspect Chayka’s heard plenty about from him his counterparts in the Bundesliga, which returned to the field on May 16.
“I’ve spent a lot of time talking to the German soccer league and what they’re up to,” Chayka told Tim Micallef and Sid Seixeiro on Tim & Sid Thursday. “The one thing they’ve told me is that it’s definitely a different animal playing in front of no fans, mentally. So, you know, any discussions we have with players, we’re trying to get them prepared. … You can’t understand it ’til you feel it, but having them understand that that’s going to be the case. It’s definitely a different feel.”
The prospect of playing without fans in the building — which is all but a certainty for the league’s potential 24-team playoff restart, and potentially parts of next season as well — is sure to bring a different type of challenge for the teams still in the running for the Stanley Cup, said Chayka. And it’ll also show us something about what makes the gears turn for those suiting up for the tournament.
“Certainly the psychological piece of it is going to be a challenge,” Chayka said. “But I also think it’s going to be an opportunity for some teams. I think it’s going to be those guys that are really intrinsically motivated, that want to go out and compete for themselves and their teammates, and know that their fanbase is watching on TV — I think those are the guys that will really play well.”
While much has been made of the NHL’s Return to Play Plan and whether or not it’s the best option for potentially resuming the current season, Chayka echoed the sentiments of many in the game in saying right now it simply seems the best possible option of those available, even if it falls short of perfect.
That said, the unique situation the game finds itself in could in fact lead to something exceptional on the ice, at least from a fan perspective, according to Chayka.
“I think everyone’s just trying to do the best with what we have in front of us, and I also think that [if we] do our best and then come back and play, I think it’s going to make for the most entertaining hockey we’ve seen in a long time,” the Coyotes manager told Tim & Sid.
“I think guys are chomping at the bit to get back and play. I think the speed and the skill of the game is at a high enough level that it’s ever been, and you know, there’s going to be some wide-open hockey to begin with, I just don’t think there’s any way to get around that.”
Watch John Chayka’s full interview with Tim & Sid via the video at the top of this post.