Lightning to “new normal”
by Ryan O'Leary|30 JUL 2020
Jon Cooper (here with Team Canada) and his Tampa Bay Lightning players are looking forward to battling it out for the Stanley Cup soon.
photo: Robert Hradil / HHOF-IIHF Images
The last time the Tampa Bay Lightning played a competitive game, before COVID-19 forced the NHL to shut down, was March 10.

By coincidence, that game took place in Toronto - one of the two sites the NHL will use to stage the NHL playoffs starting August 1 with its tournament qualifier and round-robin seeding games.

So after 144 days away from competitive play -- a large chunk of off-ice altogether -- how does one of the Stanley Cup favorites prepare for such a monumental occasion.

We spent a week interviewing members of the Lightning via Zoom from their home at Amalie Arena in Tampa’s Channelside District to get a deeper appreciation for their preparation, to get a microcosm of how the rest of league is approaching the season restart.

Creating Family and Changing Habits

Part of being a professional hockey player is habit. Habit of eating, traveling, practicing and working out. Every aspect of life is dialed in for the sole purpose of maximizing output on the ice.

In speaking with the players, one of the biggest aberrations to their routine is the morning ritual.

“We can’t eat or drink anything 30 minutes prior to getting tested,” said Ryan McDonagh who pointed out that a Covid swab is administered every morning on all players, staff and coaches.

“Breakfast is out of the window and no more morning coffee on the way to the rink.”

Wearing masks around the facility, alternate changing areas, increased testing, video conferencing for media interviews and more have all shaken-up an Amalie Arena environment that is typically regimented on practice and game-days.

The NHL laid out a stringent four-phase protocol in order to get players back on the ice in a slow, but steady manner.

  • Phase 1 – Mar-May: Self isolation and individual workouts
  • Phase 2 – Early June: Return to home facilities for small group, voluntary, and on- and off-ice training.
  • Phase 3 – Not Earlier than First Half of July: Formal training camps begin medical and civil authorities.
  • Phase 4 – Aug 1: 24 teams in 2 “hub” cities will compete in Seeding Round Robins, a Qualifying Round and Conference-based Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Tampa, like other teams, did not emerge from the first few phases unscathed. Three players did test positive for the virus but without any serious illness or consequence. Those players -- not named due to privacy issues -- went into self-isolation and the club was able to return back to its normal protocols.

To alleviate some of the stress related to the new “normal’, Head Coach Jon Cooper took a unique approach. He evoked unity while keeping his players’ eyes focused on the prize.

“The sooner we created a family atmosphere and when we helped the players realize that we are planning for a Stanley Cup, we were able to get over a lot of obstacles in this new environment.”

One of the benefits of this Tampa team, unlike others around the league is the amount of time the team’s core -- Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Jon Cooper and more -- has remained together and the deep, tough playoff battles they’ve encountered together.

Proximity is also important. If you caught any of “Dock Talk” on Instagram featuring veteran Alex Killorn, you saw just how quickly the forward was able to use his jet-ski to visit his teammates who all live on the water close to the arena.

The episodes showed the lighter part of self-isolation and how the players were staying focused and in shape, but it also illuminates how close the team is and the ease at which they had to stay in communication, train and practice together.

“Our group was just anxious to come to the rink every day, to have those fun times and work on some things and get our game going in the right direction.”

Despite all the changes, Cooper’s message stayed the same throughout, “There's a light at the end of the tunnel.

“The Stanley Cup is going to get handed out at some point. Usually it’s June, but this year it’s October, almost a year after we started this season and we can't lose sight of that goal no matter what.”

Life in Toronto

On Wednesday of this week, Tampa jumped out to an early 4-0 lead on Florida in its first warm-up game in Toronto after the lengthy break. They’d move on to win 5-0 and the burst of offense felt quite familiar for Tampa in an environment that’s anything but usual..

The Bolts arrived in Toronto on Sunday -- prepped for a lengthy stay in the city. Penned into a hotel and a rink for potentially 3.5 months, the club is bringing it all.

Jon Cooper, an avid reader, is bringing a fictional crime book series. Blake Coleman and Alex Killorn are excited for some golf time. And every player is making sure their streaming services are up-to-date and that FaceTime is fully operational to stay in touch with family and friends.
“We’re going to have to find ways to keep our minds not going crazy,” Killorn Said.

McDonagh put it in funnier terms. “The good thing is we're not having to carry suits up there. We're going to wear a, some tracksuits, I guess that's a nice plus not having to lug the dress shoes around.”

“At the end of the day it’ll be fun to be back around the guys at the rink and the hotel. So it's just doing whatever you can in between to pass the time and get yourself as ready as you can for a game or a practice.”

Simultaneously, the NHL is doing everything it can to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for the players in Canada.

The NHL released diagrams last Thursday of the Edmonton and Toronto bubbles complete with details about amenities available to players and team staff, including 14 "on-site diverse restaurants" and eight "golf suites" within the Toronto hub.

In terms of security, a fence will run through and enclose the entirety of the bubble to keep everyone inside and nobody unauthorized from getting in.

Roughly 100 security guards and "health ambassadors" will also be situated inside the bubble as well. And in terms of testing, everyone inside the bubble will be tested daily for COVID-19 and results will be made available within 24 hours.

“It took us about a day to figure out where we could go and what we could do inside the bubble,” said Cooper. “If this is the worst it’s gonna get, we’re in a pretty good situation.”

A World Championship “Format”

While hockey leagues across the globe were forced to shut down their season or finish in front of no fans, the IIHF was forced to cancel the 2020 World Championship to be hosted in Switzerland.

It’s a much sought after and highly-anticipated event on the annual hockey calendar, but those disappointed about its absence might gain solace in the format and feel of the this year’s version of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Cooper, Team Canada’s head coach in 2017, said just as much.

“I consider this to be somewhat similar, just on a larger scale.” I say that because you leave for a long period of time. training camp for two, two-and-a-half weeks. You keep your same locker room. All the teams are in the same arena, games are being played in the same arena. So we've been drawn a lot off that.

Forward Ondrej Palat, a veteran of the Czech Republic’s national team at a variety of tournaments, the most recent being the 2019 World Championship, says this year’s playoffs actually remind him a lot of the World Cup of Hockey.

“I have experienced playing in the World Cup and it was the same thing. After a full season you have a couple of months off and then you go straight into playing against the best players in the world.”

“That was a pretty big tournament and so is this.”

When play halted the Lightning found themselves as the second seed in the Eastern Conference and since they fall within the top-four teams, they will enter a round-robin format against the Capitals, Flyers and Bruins to determine ultimate seeding when quarterfinals begin.

For the teams seeded fifth through twelfth, they will play a best-of-five series to determine which four teams will join those higher seeded teams taking part in the round robin. This same format is taking place for the Western Conference, in Edmonton, prior to staging the Stanley Cup Final.

While the format might feel completely foreign for the NHL, the process by which so many games will be staged (in a two-city partnership) reflects what the World Championship has been doing for years.

It’s common for three or even four games to be staged at one of two rinks during the World Championship and the NHL will be doing similar.

Fans can enjoy up to six games a day with games being staged at 12p, 4p and 8p EST for the Eastern Conference and roughly 2:30p, 6:30p and 10:30 p EST for the Western Conference Games.

“It definitely is going to take on the feel of the World Championships,” Cooper reflected.

Defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who represents the United States in international play, echoed Palat and Cooper’s thoughts.

“Once you get up there and the games start you're in the hotel and it's kind of back and forth to the rink. We’re going to be watching other games to see who makes it out of the first round and how teams are shaking out. So, yes, it’ll feel exactly like the Olympics or World Championships.

Cooper finished by paying a major compliment to international tournaments, “I never really thought that [those tournaments] would have anything to do with preparing me for a Stanley Cup Tournament, if you will. But now I’m thankful to have that under my belt.”