Maple Leafs, Oilers face level playing field despite NHL hub status

Shawn McKenzie and Chris Johnston discussed developments at Maple Leafs training camp, including 18-year old Nick Robertson remaining with the main forward group, and how the NHL is trying to diminish home ice advantage for the team.

TORONTO — If the rumours are true, the ear-piercing Columbus Blue Jackets cannon explosion will echo through Scotiabank Arena when they put a puck behind Frederik Andersen during their Stanley Cup qualifying series.

Consider that one of the many ways the Toronto Maple Leafs will be made to feel a little less at home while serving as Eastern Conference hub hosts.

The NHL is prioritizing a level playing field both here and in Edmonton, where the Oilers will be home, but not, for this 24-team restart. Players from both teams will move to hotels inside the secure zone on Sunday and be subjected to all of the same rules and restrictions as everyone else.

From a hockey perspective, that’s going to see the Leafs visit parts of their own building some players may be unfamiliar with. They will almost certainly have to dress in the converted media room space and the Toronto Raptors locker room at some point, in addition to the NHL visiting room and their typical home setup behind the sliding silver doors.

Sheldon Keefe has designed his summer training camp around trying to get his players familiar with the unfamiliar — scheduling a simulated game at 4 p.m. ET on Thursday, for example, to align with the puck drop they’ll have in Game 2 against Columbus — but acknowledged that there’s limitations when it comes to getting prepared to be a visitor at home.

“That’s going to be quite challenging,” Keefe said Tuesday. “I think we’ve got enough time next week where we’re going to get that feeling.”

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The head coach is happy that they’ll be considered the visiting team for next Tuesday’s exhibition game with Montreal, since it will expose them to a different dressing room setup and the view from the other bench before jumping directly into the best-of-five.

The Leafs will get their own dressing room for Game 1 against Columbus on Aug. 2 before changing in the media room while again serving as the home team in Game 2. They’ll then be designated visitors for Games 3 and 4, if necessary, and be assigned either the Raptors room or NHL visiting room depending on start times.

They would be considered the home team in the event of a deciding Game 5 against the Blue Jackets.

“I think for our group, the getting comfortable with being uncomfortable (is important) and dealing with the uncertainties and things that you’re accustomed to or used to, just realizing they may not be there,” Leafs captain John Tavares said. “You might not have access to that. We’re the visiting team in our building, there’s going to be no fans.

“It just is what it is.”

At least those who graduated from the organization’s American Hockey League program will have some experience with what’s to come. Justin Holl has been reminding teammates that it’s not unlike what they saw during the Marlies’ traditional Boxing Day game at Scotiabank Arena.

“We’d be getting dressed in the guest locker-rooms and sometimes like the Raptors room and stuff like that. It’s just going to be a little throwback,” Holl said. “It’ll be definitely weird, but it’s something that a lot of the guys have done too.”

The one area where the Leafs are believed to be keeping some familiar comforts is by remaining in their spacious dressing room at the practice rink — although Keefe said Tuesday he hadn’t been told that was the case.

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After settling in on Sunday, teams will not be switching rooms at Ford Performance Centre throughout the qualifying round. The NHL has drawn up a schedule where each is assigned a practice time on one of three pads each day, and it’s left open the option for them to use the larger Olympic-sized sheet in cases where they’d prefer to skate at a different time.

In Toronto’s case, that means multiple mid-afternoon practices are scheduled over the next week or two — something they’d rarely, if ever, hold under normal circumstances.

The Leafs also ended up with the less favourable hotel setup because points percentage was used in determining who stayed where. They’ll move into the Royal York while the Eastern Conference’s five best teams (Boston, Tampa, Washington, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) take up residence at Hotel X — a much more modern property with appealing amenities such as a rooftop pool and tennis courts. It’s also in close proximity to BMO Field, which will be transformed into an outdoor park of sorts for players with BBQs and green space to use for workouts or relaxing.

The Leafs are one of the seven teams that need to take a shuttle there if they hope to use it — yet one more example where they’re not receiving favourable treatment.

They’re even told when they can come and go from Scotiabank Arena. With health and safety paramount and up to three games per day being played inside the building, the NHL is setting a scheduled arrival time for each team.

“We know the rink, but we’re going to be abiding by such strict protocols in entry and exit and we’re not getting any preferred treatment in terms of hotel or facilities,” general manager Kyle Dubas said recently. “So I think that the league’s done a pretty good job of keeping that very fair.”

Including by forcing him and team president Brendan Shanahan to cover their ears when Columbus scores.

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