NEWARK, N.J. — Normalcy. It’s something we all crave these days.
As a number of the Devils players walked into the press room in the bowels of the Prudential Center on Wednesday morning, on the first day of the 2021-22 season’s training camp, they noted how normal it all felt.
They were back at the rink as the weather shifted outside from a muggy summer day to a cool one on the first official day of fall. They were back gearing up for a full slate with packed houses and trips to far away rinks in places like California and Canada. And they were back in front of the media having face-to-face chats without a computer screen or Zoom link in sight.
Yes, it was good to be back to normal — for everyone.
Maybe P.K. Subban, one of just two players born in the 1980s (the other being goalie Jonathan Bernier) among the Jersey boys, said it best: “I think it’s a lot more relaxing this year, just kind of knowing what’s ahead of you.”
But not everyone on this young squad knows what is actually ahead. Superstar in the making Jack Hughes hasn’t played a full crop of games in his two NHL years. Neither has defenseman Ty Smith who is entering his sophomore season. There may not have been another player at the Prudential Center on Wednesday as excited to just get back to playing hockey as Smith and he is keen to face guys he hasn’t played before.
“I’m excited for the task, the challenge,” he said when asked about now getting the chance to face guys like speedster Connor McDavid. “We’ll see how it goes, McDavid makes guys look pretty silly throughout the league.”
After two seasons that were shortened and tweaked due to the COVID-19 pandemic, things are officially shifting back to the usual setting. Kiss goodbye to the geographically strapped divisions and extend a hearty welcome back for the Atlantic, Metropolitan and Pacific Divisions. (There was still a Central Division in 2021 but it had a twist.) Did you miss seeing Western Conference teams out East as much as Flames’ bruiser and ex-Bruin Milan Lucic did? Well, guess what, you’ll both be happy now — especially Lucic who gave a chuckle back in April when asked, saying that he selfishly missed the Eastern Conference because: “If you look at my stats, probably scored most of my goals and assists against Eastern Conference teams.”
The 2021-22 upcoming season, if all goes according to plan (knock on wood now, please) will have that full 82-game grinding slate with cross-country treks on the books for the 32 teams including a stop in the Pacific Northwest to visit the NHL’s newest squad, the Seattle Kraken. It’s something guys are looking forward to.
“I think last year we all really missed (the travel), playing only in your own division — it was good but it was repetitive,” said Coyotes forward Jakob Chychrun. “It’s nice going to all different cities and playing in all different rinks. That’s something I’m really looking forward to.”
Last year may have had baseball-like road trips but it was nothing short of a grind of a different sort as each club was expected to play 56 games in just 115 days (the schedule was adjusted at times in-season/expanded at the end due to COVID), and while this year has an Olympic break there’s more breathing room.
“I know that I was watching some of our games from last year, just a couple days ago and on the Boston broadcast, [from] when we’re in Boston, they said this team will have to play a game in every 47 and a half hours or something, which has never happened before in the league. I mean that was a crazy schedule,” said coach Lindy Ruff.
Last season was hard. There weren’t any exhibition games to gear up for the season. There wasn’t much wiggle room for practices and most morning skates just didn’t happen. And they had to do it all under strict COVID protocols, without — for the most part — a building filled with fans. As noted by McDavid, the reigning Hart Trophy winner who spent the entire season and postseason without fans in Rodgers Place, it’s not only good to get back to pre-COVID days but still protecting one another.
“Definitely nice to get back to a little normalcy, be around guys and have the chance to play a regular season, have fans back in the building and all that. It’s exciting,” he said when chatting with the media on Thursday.
The Canadian teams, including McDavid’s Oilers and Stanley Cup Finalists from Montreal, had a tough go with travel from coast to coast and quiet buildings.
“It was tough. I’m not gonna lie to you guys it wasn’t pretty and especially for a guy like me who likes to feed off the fans and the crowd,” said newest Devils forward Tomas Tatar who spent 2021 with the Canadiens. “I always knew how big of a part they are to the hockey game but once you experience it without it — I was personally suffering not to see anyone out there. So I’m super excited to see them.”
Surely the fans are excited to see their favorite team too.
Riley Trujillo contributed to this story.
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