TORONTO — In returning to the Toronto Maple Leafs practice facility in recent days, Mitch Marner has started ramping up for a conclusion to the season.
And after seeing all of the league-mandated protocols and testing procedures now in place for small-group workouts, the star winger sounds encouraged about the prospect of competing for the Stanley Cup amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I think the NHL has everything under control through what I’ve seen through the last week or so,” Marner said Thursday. “They’re doing all the right things to make sure no one’s in the wrong or going to be in a bad place if anything happens.
“I think they’re going to do what’s best for their athletes and make sure that they’re willing to look after us and take care of us.”
Creating the safest possible environment is essential to seeing the planned 24-team restart through.
That’s been at the heart of discussions between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association, who are still finalizing the overall return-to-play agreement that will need to be approved by owners and players before training camps open and games can be played.
It was just last month that Marner raised the kind of concerns everyone facing a return to work has grappled with — saying on a Twitch stream that he was all for trying to finish the season “but what if someone gets sick and dies? What happens? Like it’s awful to think about, but still.”
The Phase 2 workouts he’s now participating in are operating under a strict set of rules detailed in a 21-page memo from the NHL. They include daily temperature checks when entering the facility, twice-weekly nasal swab tests and a requirement that every player wears a mask when not working out.
There are limitations on how many people can be in change rooms and the shower area at the same time, and Marner is only currently allowed to take the ice with a group of teammates that includes John Tavares, Ilya Mikheyev, Jake Muzzin, Cody Ceci and Jack Campbell.
The protocol is designed to limit contact between individuals and quickly identify anyone who contracts the virus. And based on the experience of the players in Toronto, it doesn’t seem to have diminished their ability to make gains at the rink.
“It’s been good,” Marner said. “It’s great getting back out there with a couple of the guys and getting to enjoy all that stuff and hanging out in the locker room again with them. It’s something that I think a lot of guys really do enjoy just being in the locker room and kind of just joke around and chirp each other.
“So it’s nice to be back in that kind of format.”
Marner went 10 or 11 weeks without skating after the season was paused March 12 and is still working on getting his conditioning back. He rollerbladed and shot pucks in the driveway during that stretch and jumped on the exercise bike regularly, but doesn’t feel like he’ll rediscover peak form until the games start.
In that sense, he’s still in the early stages of his own return-to-play process.
Even if training camps open as scheduled on July 10, the Leafs likely wouldn’t play their two exhibition games until the final week of the month. The best-of-five play-in series against the Columbus Blue Jackets would then start in early August.
While Marner acknowledged that it will be a “weird feeling” to jump immediately into huge games, he believes the team can draw on its playoff experience after losing tightly contested first-round series against top competition each of the past three years.
“I think for us it’s just knowing that every game’s not going to be perfect, every game’s not going to be what we want it to be,” Marner said. “But it’s going to be a hard game every single game we play against that team. They come out flying every game, they come out playing hard.
“I think we all recognize that and we all know that that’s the challenge at hand.”
They certainly seem to be steeling themselves for a return to play.
There are still important logistical details to be hammered out before the NHL can officially proceed, but the Leafs are already growing more comfortable with the idea that they’ll be given a chance to finish what they started.
“I think for us it’s just making sure we’re getting ready, we’re being ready, just in case anything happens for the season to start,” Marner said. “I mean everything pans that it is, but at the same time obviously there’s bigger things in life than sports and that’s making sure everyone stays healthy and everyone stays able to live their full life.”