NHL’s first Phase 2 skates small but important step on road to return

Edmonton Oilers players Alex Chiasson, Matt Benning, Kris Russell, Tyler Benson and Stuart Skinner take part in the team's first skate in Phase 2 of the NHL's return to play plan. (Edmonton Oilers via Twitter)

EDMONTON — They walked from their dressing rooms, that once familiar path that has been left un-walked for most of three months, and they knocked the pucks off the dasher boards in Edmonton, Toronto, Philadelphia and smaller arenas across Canada and the United States. Those pucks hit the ice, and players followed, but actual hockey?

It is still back in the dressing room, not even out of its street clothes yet. Hockey returned Monday the way they let people back into a town devastated by flood or fire. Small groups with time limits. Do not linger.

“It’s one thing to train, but it’s another thing to get on the ice. Your first session, you’re more or less trying to get your legs, your feet under you. Getting used to our edges,” said Edmonton Oilers defenceman Matt Benning.

Benning is a second-generation NHL player, son of Brian, who played nine NHL seasons. A nephew to Vancouver Canucks GM Jim Benning, who will go to the next draft — whenever that is — and resist the urge to draft Matt’s younger brother Mike, though Jim Benning admits he may give in if the stars align.

No Benning has gone more than a month during their NHL career without skating somewhere with somebody, we would wager. Maybe two months tops, back in Jim and Brian’s day.

“Some people can get out there and pick up where they left off, but speaking for myself, when I’m off the ice for two days it feels like I’ve never skated in my life before,” Matt said. “Three months was a little nerve-wracking, but I felt better than expected.”

For a Benning to feel weird walking into a hockey rink is blaspheme? Like a Rojas feeling out of sorts at a ball diamond, or an Unser being unsure where to find the bathroom at Indy.

But there was Matt on Monday, arriving at an arena for a practice that made him feel like he was 18 years old again.

“It’s definitely a different circumstance,” he chuckled. “Besides at my first training camp, you walk in (to camp), you know what’s expected, you kind of know how the days are going to go. Today, I had that same feeling like at my first training camp. Not knowing.

“There were people to help us through, make sure we were doing the right things to stay safe, wear masks, proper hygiene… It was exciting to get back to the rink. But it was a different feeling.”

Don’t kid yourself: There are NHL stars who have skated for weeks by themselves at private arenas. But the vast majority have not, and in an age where most NHL players do not allow themselves to fall out of shape over the summer, a June re-start is as strange as adding a third blue-line.

This is how everything comes back, whether it’s a political party that gets bulldozed in an election or a sports franchise that finds itself capped out with old players and in last place in the standings. After a most disappointing spring without a single playoff game — let alone the Masters, the Blue Jays, the CFL — hockey will not return in one grand, curtain-raising moment.

It will sneak back slowly, with small group skating across the hockey world. And in a month or so they’ll join each other, and for another two to three weeks they’ll practice, while a hockey country longs for real games.

“It’s important for everybody,” Benning said of the game’s eventual return. “We’ve been cooped up for so long and it’s such a hockey focused country, and Alberta is very passionate about their sports. Hockey offers some hope for people and it’ll be a unique experience when it does start back up.”

It’s worth remembering that the entertainers themselves have a little more invested in this process than do the fans, who will be denied the right to buy that $13 beer and $12 hotdog. For instance, Benning is heading into what could possibly be a two-month quarantine, but his wife Janelle has a baby on the way. It’s unlikely that the Oilers would play in Edmonton should it be chosen as a hub city, but if they were here what would he do?

“My wife’s due in two or three weeks and when that starts up, it’ll be such a tease for me that I can’t drive 10 (minutes) down the road and see my new baby,” Benning said. “I’ll have to roll with the punches. Our facilities are so big with lots of space, and with what I experienced at the rink today, they know what they’re doing and I have total confidence in them.”

In the end he’ll find a way to play because he’s a Benning. It’s in his DNA to play the game, watch the game, and provide a game for the rest of us.

“It doesn’t get any better than when the weather’s nice outside and you can enjoy a drink and then watch playoff hockey,” Benning said. “Regardless of when we start, the people of Alberta will be extremely excited for us.”

Hey? How about a cold beer, a barbecued burger and a springtime playoff tilt?

Does that sound like any fun?

Only about six weeks to wait…

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