As reports of numerous players and coaches on the Miami Marlins testing positive for COVID-19 swept through the sports world on Monday morning, the Florida Panthers woke up in Toronto and went about their business.
Only they did so a little differently than they were used to.
The Panthers flew to Toronto on Sunday and took up residence at the Royal York Hotel where they will be sequestered for the foreseeable future.
“It was surprisingly very smooth with a lot of technical details you have to adhere to,” Coach Joel Quenneville said of life within the NHL bubble.
“There is compliance we have to follow and the guys have been great. As far as the NHL goes, they are keeping everyone aware of what is necessary and what’s needed to follow accordingly as far as testing and scheduling.
“There are a lot of moving parts and a people have been accommodating. It has made for an interesting couple of days here but it has gone very smooth.”
Quenneville joked getting out of the hotel to go to the practice rink was much harder to do than getting into the hotel in the first place.
“There are a lot of steps you have to cross to get to your hotels. I have never seen a place where you have to go through security to get out of the hotel but you didn’t to get in,” Quenneville said of the NHL’s Phase 4 precautions. Those include players having to stay within the league parameters upon entering the secure space on Sunday.
“It’s a different way of doing things. Every day you have to get looked at, get monitored. There is a protocol which has to be followed on a regular basis.
“No one has any indication to leave the boundaries here and they have moved some things around so there are places to go eat and drink here. You’re together with your team initially so you’re not going to cross one another. A lot of thought went into every little step.”
Being from South Florida, one of the biggest COVID-19 hotspots in the entire world, the Panthers have been paying attention to health reports and say they have been precautious.
Even before leaving for Toronto, the players, coaches and staff were subject to daily testing. The habit of wearing a mask and slathering on the hand sanitizer throughout the day has become almost ritualistic.
On Monday, the NHL said none of their players tested positive among close to 4,300 tests being administered.
“We heard about the 14 players and staff who tested positive but from our aspect here, the NHL has done an awesome job of keeping our closeness to people at a minimum,” Noel Acciari said on the NHL video conference call Monday.
“There are certain times you can be somewhere, certain times you can go to a restaurant. They have done a really good job with that. It is only Day 1, but it is pretty strict.”
Still, reports out of Philadelphia — where the Marlins have stayed after beating the Phillies on Sunday afternoon — have not gone unnoticed by the Panthers.
The two teams have had zero interaction over the past few weeks.
Marlins outfielder Jon Berti was recently seen on Fox Sports Florida showing off his shot at the Panthers IceDen but that was taped months ago — way before the pandemic halted sports.
“It is tricky, but I think the NHL did a really good job. This is well organized,’’ Huberdeau said.
“We are well separated, you don’t see the other teams. Just follow the protocol, wear the mask and there is a lot of security. If we follow the protocol, we’re going to be good to go.”
Said Quenneville: “It is an unfortunate thing to hear about the Marlins in that regard. I wish them nothing but the best. It has been an amazing start [here] seeing how well organized everything is.”
The Panthers had very good news on the injury front on Monday as star defenseman Aaron Ekblad returned to practice after missing the past three days of workouts.
Chase Priskie, who has missed most of last week after leaving a practice early, did not practice with the team but Quenneville said he skated on his own afterward.
Quenneville said last week that Ekblad would be good to go when Florida opens its best-of-5 Stanley Cup qualifier against the New York Islanders.
On Monday, he said Ekblad would not play in the exhibition game Wednesday against the Tampa Bay Lightning due to precautionary reasons.
— Florida Panthers (@FlaPanthers) July 27, 2020
“They all participated today,” Quenneville said. “[Ekblad] wanted to get back to practice in the worst way so we got him out there today.
“We won’t play him in the Tampa game but he will get some skating in Wednesday and we’ll go into the weekend. He will be ready to go. We have been cautious with him but he wanted to practice … he got across the barrier and he’s ready to go.”
Said Huberdeau: “He is obviously a key piece to our team so it was good to have him back. He looked good on the ice today. He won’t play against Tampa but will be ready for the Islanders. He is a big piece to our team.”
— The best-of-5 postseason format is not new to the NHL, although it has been sometime since such short series were used in the league.
They were the norm during Quenneville’s playing days, however.
“That’s going back just a couple years ago,’’ he said chuckling. “Back in the day when we did best-of-5, we played four five nights and it was right off the bat, a heckuva grind. Sometimes your legs, you didn’t know if you had them underneath you.
“Going into this series, everyone will have a back-to-back at some point and you have to be concerned about those and the next day. But you’re only playing to win the game that you are in. That’s the focus in a short series. Momentum is the key.”
— Florida’s exhibition game on Wednesday will be between two teams with different outlooks.
The Panthers will be playing for their season in their following game while the Lightning come to Toronto as the second-seeded team in the Eastern Conference and will be playing round-robin games upon its return.
“We are not going to be preoccupied with what Tampa is doing in that game technically,’’ Quenneville said.
“I think for both teams, the motivation is to come out of it clean-and-neat and be ready to go for the first game. It is a game where you can work on special teams, pace of the game. It is not the same flow you have seen the past couple of weeks. We get a few extra guys to see as well.
“But the bottom line is let’s make sure we are ready to play after that game. You should get something out of it as well.”