There were smiles and laughter to go with the huffing and puffing.
At one point, Senators captain Brady Tkachuk collided with a teammate during a drill, threw his arms around him in a playful bear hug and had a grin on his face so wide he looked like a boy on Christmas morning with presents on his lap.
“Everybody was joking around that it almost feels like the first day of training camp, just seeing everybody and getting back in the groove,” Tkachuk said after a 90-minute skate that marked the Senators return to the practice ice following a COVID-19 outbreak and ultimate team shutdown. “It’s nice to be back – back into a kind of routine. Credit to all our trainers and doctors for making the right calls, keeping us safe and doing all the right things to stop the spread and all that stuff.”
We can quibble about how long it took the NHL to shut down the Senators' schedule for a week, beginning last Monday, after 10 Ottawa players plus assistant coach Jack Capuano tested positive for COVID over a period of 10 days. But it was finally done, and the Senators have had a mercifully quiet week of recovery and no further positive tests.
Winger Austin Watson was the first to enter the protocols list, on Nov. 5, after the Senators road trip through Dallas, Chicago and Minnesota.
Eight of the 10 players were cleared to practice on Saturday: Watson, Connor Brown, Josh Brown, Alex Formenton, Dylan Gambrell, Nick Holden, Victor Mete and Matt Murray. Defenceman Nikita Zaitsev and winger Drake Batherson, Ottawa’s scoring leader, remain in COVID protocol but could join the Senators later this week during their road trip to Colorado and California.
The Senators play their first game in eight days on Monday against the Avalanche. They go on to play San Jose, Anaheim and Los Angeles Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Between now and Christmas, Ottawa has 16 games in 32 days.
As daunting as this four-game road trip might be, with the unknown of player conditioning and rust, head coach D.J. Smith was thrilled just to have the group together again on a sheet of practice ice.
“Players, coaches, management – for the most part every one of us has grown up wanting to be in hockey our whole life. This is what we do,” Smith said. “From August to – hopefully, June – you want to be at the rink. It’s been an unfortunate time, where we had to be shut down, but it’s great to be back.”
Smith said he would be canvasing players post-practice to see how their bodies responded, especially players who had COVID symptoms. Coach Capuano, who was hit hard by COVID symptoms, was not on the ice and is taking more time to recuperate.
“Some of the guys who didn’t have it, but didn’t skate for five days, are feeling just about the same (as the symptomatic players),” Smith said. “So, is it because you were sick or because you haven’t skated in five days? We’ll know that when the game starts.”
Although Smith acknowledged that while the shutdown, then a crammed two-day mini-camp, before a road game Monday is “not the ideal situation,” he believed that safety dictated that the team close shop for the better part of a week.
Now what to expect?
“This is uncharted waters,” Smith said. “I’ve talked to other coaches in the league whose players have gone through it. Some came back with no issues, some came back in the first game and felt horrible, so we’re going to have to see as we go here. And if we have to give a guy a day off here or there, put some fresh guys in to give them time to recoup, we’ll certainly do that.”
Interestingly, rookie defenceman Lassi Thomson, pressed into emergency duty during the outbreak, not only stayed with the NHL group but in line rushes remained on the top pair with Thomas Chabot. Mete was paired with Zub, and Holden with Josh Brown. Michael Del Zotto was the extra D-man.
Thomson, 21, and forward Parker Kelly, who was the extra forward at practice, are the only AHL callups left in Ottawa.
“Both have showed really well,” Smith said. “We’ll see how the roster unfolds as people get healthy and if they (Thomson, Kelly) can get enough minutes or not. I mean, it’s still a major development for them. Lassi played really well, but again, it’s a process for him. What’s going to make him the best defenceman at 23 years old?”
After being a national story for all the wrong reasons – a COVID outbreak, not their play on the ice – the Senators are looking forward to putting the “noise” of the outbreak behind them and start to pick up the pieces of a season that started poorly and then came crashing down on them as their COVID cases peaked and the Calgary Flames routed them 4-0. Their record is 4-10-1.
“It’s hard enough to win in the league with no noise and everyone healthy,” Smith said. “The more you talk about it, the more you dwell on things that happened in the past.”
Nevertheless, captain Tkachuk called the outbreak an “eye-opener” as the cases spread among fully vaccinated players, not just in Ottawa but elsewhere in the NHL.
“We’re always thinking about safety, not only as a team and organization, but our families and communities,” Tkachuk said.
“It’s an experience I don’t think anybody is ever going to forget.”
For the veteran defenceman Holden, the oldest Senators player at 34, the memory will include trying to isolate himself in his own house to protect his wife and four children. Despite wearing the best medical masks and doing a “Heisman” out-stretched arm imitation to keep the children away from him, Holden and his wife, Angela, both caught COVID as did three of the four children. Fortunately, the kids' symptoms were mild and they're on the mend, although still staying home from school.
Watson, who led the team stretch Saturday as his teammates called him “Patient Zero,” said his symptoms were quite severe in the first couple of days – chills and aches – but quickly improved after that. Watson’s wife, Jennifer, also got COVID but their two children were spared.
The tough winger has had a rough spell, getting back from an ankle injury in time to play only two games before hitting the COVID protocols list. Last March, Watson was sidelined with a broken hand.
“It’s been tough, I’ve played two games in the last nine months or something like that,” Watson said. “Just a little bit of bad luck, couple breaks and COVID. So, considering all that, I feel pretty good.”
Asked how he might have contracted COVID, Watson quipped: “What is it, an airborne virus, so probably somewhere in the air.” His point is well taken - no one really knows.
Leave it to Watson to put the COVID outbreak in perspective. In his career, Watson has lived through substance abuse rehabilitations and a charge of domestic violence, for which he received a sentence of probation in the courts and a suspension from the NHL.
“There’s a lot worse things,” Watson says of his teams’ brush with COVID.
“Even in my personal life, I’ve been to a couple of rehabs and into jail, sh-- like that,” Watson said. “To have to pause for 10, 12 days in the grand scheme of life is not such a big deal. And if we can just, you know, get back to square one as a group here, and move forward, I think we will do that.”
While Canadian winter approaches and the days grow shorter, as basic an element as fresh air and California sunshine might be just what the doctor ordered for his ailing team, according to Smith.
“It’ll be good, just to get on the road, and especially to places that get a lot of sunlight,” Smith said. “I know we’re not going to be going out, but even just going for walks. It’s amazing what sunlight can do for guys – to get outside and start feeling good.”
On Saturday, just skating on the ice again felt like a breath of fresh air and sunshine.