Zdeno Chara was sweating away his 43rd birthday Wednesday morning on his stationary bike at home. Fellow Bruins defenseman John Moore was doing pushups with his two young daughters on his back.
Elsewhere on social media, star Colorado winger Mikko Rantanen was doing Bulgarian split squats — flexing his forward leg in a deep bend, trailing leg resting on a chair — while holding two armfuls of his mud-bellied Labrador. Vegas defenseman Deryk Engelland was bench-pressing his son. Sergei Bobrovsky, the Panthers’ $10 million goalie, was using his hands to catch tennis balls from an auto-serve machine.
In this new work-from-home environment, NHL players were doing what they could to stay active. Spending quality time with kids, pets, and spouses was a goal — “We’re getting to know each other,” one NHL coach texted, jokingly alluding to the catch-up many in the sport were playing with their loved ones — but players were trying to get a sweat in however they could.
A TSN report this past week indicated players were discussing the idea of a training camp that begins in early July, with the end of the 2019-20 season later that month, followed by playoffs in August and September, a shortened offseason, draft and free agency in October, and the beginning of a full 82-game schedule in November.
It looks like wishful thinking. No one knows how successful the United States and Canada’s efforts to contain COVID-19 will be, or whether there will be a second wave of infection. Once the league returns, a positive test could send everyone back to isolation.
So players are essentially beginning their offseasons now.
Though NHL team facilities are closed — and, increasingly, public and private gyms with them — the average pro has some kind of basic setup at home. Weightlifting and cardio intervals, the hallmarks of hockey training, are possible under quarantine conditions even without access to a home with a Peloton and squat rack.
“Whatever you’ve got,” said Mike Boyle of Mike Boyle Strength & Conditioning. “If you can’t get outside and ride, or run, or row, run in place. A set of 100 bodyweight squats is better than nothing. We started posting workouts that you can do with one dumbbell or one kettlebell. I’ve seen guys doing workouts with cement blocks and a 2-by-4.”
Most pros won’t have to be that creative. The dog-and-kid workouts are mainly for social media entertainment. They typically have the space (and disposable income) to supply a home studio fit for strength and skill work. Those who don’t will have unique stories to tell. Once the NHL returns, it will be clear who had the will to attack this sudden offseason aggressively.
“Most of these guys are well versed enough to train on their own,” said Boyle, who was hired as the Bruins’ first strength coach in 1990 amid a long run at Boston University. “The bad thing is some need to be pushed into doing it.”
Most players take off the first week of the traditional offseason, with some light cardio and stretching (if they’re doing anything at all). In the weeks after, they ramp up their weight training and on-ice sessions. Some players don’t skate much in the offseason, save for a few late-summer tuneups before training camp.
Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask is one exception. After playing 70 games last year, between the regular season and playoffs, he didn’t strap on the pads until he returned to Brighton for camp. Rask, leading the league in goals-against average (2.12) and second in save percentage (.929) and shutouts (5), is one of several veteran Bruins who will benefit from a break.
“I don’t think a week off at this time of the year is necessarily a bad thing for these guys,” Boyle said. “Most of these guys are pretty beat up by game 70, or wherever their team is [in the season]. I would imagine there are very few guys on each team that aren’t dealing with some kind of ache or pain. Having what amounts to a second All-Star break isn’t going to hurt anybody.”
In the second week, he recommends a return to weight training. Boyle said most players should try to keep their on-ice skills as sharp as possible, given the unknown time frame.
“There shouldn’t be as big a de-training effect after one week, but the longer you go without, it becomes an issue,” Boyle said. “It’s hard to mimic the stress of a game in any sport. Going back to meaningful games will be a difficult situation to put players in. It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s hard to stay in game shape without games.”
The muscles most at risk during a layoff are the groin adductors and hip flexors. Boyle recommends players jump on a slide board, a plastic sheet with stoppers at each end, on which players can mimic a skating stride by wearing soft boots and going back and forth.
Charlie McAvoy, the Bruins’ ice time leader, averages a little more than 28 shifts per game, lasting 50 seconds each. A slide board or sprint track doesn’t replicate that kind of full-body stress and mental processing of playing defense against superstars.
Athletes live for challenges. Staying performance-ready in these times is as unique a challenge as any have faced.
Rask ponders his future
I was there in Carolina on Dec. 23, 2018, when an unfocused bunch of Bruins gave the Hurricanes a sackful of early Christmas presents. In that 5-3 loss, few Bruins were more generous than Tuukka Rask, whose lackadaisical puck play gifted Sebastian Aho a shorthanded goal.
Afterward, Bruce Cassidy ripped his starter for not fulfilling that part of the job. Down the hall, Rask muttered his displeasure with his coach’s analysis.
I thought of that game several times this season when watching Rask play dump-ins and rims. He charged out, stopped the puck, and moved it. Quick, clean, decisive.
The most improved area of Rask’s game this season (26-8-6) has been his puck play. It has gone from shaky to solid, and is one of the reasons he is a Vezina Trophy favorite. Rask himself said he changed nothing over the summer.
“I think it’s mostly our D getting to spots and getting open,” he said late last month, in a one-on-one conversation in the Warrior Ice Arena dressing room. He said his rotation with Jaroslav Halak, which has kept him fresh, was more of a factor.
“That’s pretty much it, yeah,” said Rask, who logged 41 starts before the NHL paused. That was tied for 15th-most in the league. “I have the energy to go stop it more times and go move it quick. That’s it.”
Rask, who missed three games because of a concussion after a Jan. 14 knock from Columbus’s Emil Bemstrom, was feeling fresh.
“It’s been kind of like last year,” he said, “which worked out for us.”
When I asked Rask his expectation for his future workload, the conversation shifted.
“I have one year left in the contract, so we’ll see if I even play,” he replied.
Is that a real possibility?
“We’ll see,” he said. “Always a possibility.”
Rask’s eight-year, $56 million contract expires after the 2020-21 season. It’s unclear how much the Bruins will be willing to commit to Halak, a pending unrestricted free agent. Halak’s age (35 in May) means his salary and bonuses will count against the cap. The Bruins are likely to let youngsters Dan Vladar, Jeremy Swayman, and Kyle Keyser vie for the Providence net this fall. They may have a great need to sign Rask, who would be 34 in the fall of ‘21, to another deal.
If Rask doesn't want one, would he return to play in his native Finland?
“No. No, I wouldn’t,” he said.
Just be done with his career?
“Yeah. Family time.”
Rask’s two young daughters are in school here. He and his wife, Jasmiina, are expecting another.
“Just be home,” he said. “The wear and tear of the travel with two, almost three kids now, makes you think. I love to do it. But it’s tough.”
Rask, who makes his home in the suburbs, is likely finding time to crash around on that Metallica-themed drum set his teammates got him for playing his 500th game. As of late February, he had used it “a couple” of times.
“It’s in my basement,” he said. “It’s not soundproof. But quiet enough. At least I don’t bug the neighbors. I try to play if they’re in school. I don’t want to [tick]anyone off. Just whatever, bang away.”
Maybe he’ll have a second act in a heavy metal band.
“No. Not a chance,” he said, smiling. “Well, there’s always a chance.”
Chara’s colleagues are ones for the ages
Zdeno Chara didn’t win many footraces this year, and his offense was drying up when his 22nd season went on hiatus. Chara is private about his health, but those close to him said his recovery from last June’s broken jaw made it a rough offseason.
But his leadership remains an invaluable tone-setter for his franchise. His reach, strength, and smarts make him a fantastic penalty killer and solid defender. He was averaging a team-high 3:11 on the penalty kill, tied for 11th in the league, and the Bruins had the third-most effective PK.
Chara, who turned 43 on Wednesday, plays plenty of even-strength minutes, too. He ranked in the 91st percentile of all skaters in non-special teams TOI. Astonishing for someone his age, but Chara is a unique force in this game.
It’s hard to see him going out like this.
But with the Great Pause here, it’s an open question if many proud vets, including Chara, will return.
If the captain comes back, he will be the 11th player in league history to wear an NHL sweater after turning 43.
Teemu Selanne (2014), Mark Recchi (2011), Claude Lemieux (2009), Igor Larionov, and Mark Messier (2004) played their last seasons at 43. Doug Harvey (1969) and Tim Horton (1974) made it to 44. Jaromir Jagr (2017) was 45 when he finished up with Calgary. Chris Chelios hung on until 2010, when he was two-plus months past his 48th birthday. Then there’s Gordie Howe, who was well into middle age when he returned for a final NHL season (after playing most of his 40s in the WHA). He clocked out at 52 years, 11 days, after a Whalers playoff loss to the Canadiens on April 11, 1980.
After the NHL absorbed his Whalers, Howe returned to Boston Garden on Nov. 18, 1979. Nearly 33 years before, Howe scored his first goal in the hallowed hall. He beat Frank Brimsek. A month prior, Enos Slaughter slid into home with the winning run that beat the Red Sox in the 1946 World Series. Howe had last played in the Garden in 1971, before the NHL had expanded to become a “21-team bowl of watered-down chicken soup,” wrote Ray Fitzgerald in the Globe, “with players who a generation ago would have had a hard time making it in the American Hockey League.” Against the Bruins that night, Howe was, “in truth, not a factor,” wrote Fitzgerald, but it was remarkable and nostalgic to see him out there.
Joe Thornton made it clear he has not played his last game. Asked by TSN via text about playing next season, Thornton replied, “I have years to go!” Thornton, 40, had a 7-24—31 line in 70 games this season.
It seems unlikely his former San Jose running mate, Patrick Marleau, would give up his chase of Howe’s all-time NHL games record (1,767). The 40-year-old Marleau, flipped to Pittsburgh at the deadline, is 45 games shy of setting a new mark.
Would not expect similar from a few other unrestricted free agent veterans. A month before the pause, people close to 37-year-old Mikko Koivu believed this would be his last year. Despite a tough season that saw him skating on the fourth line and demoted from power-play duty, the Wild’s first captain stayed put at the deadline, rather than chase the Cup elsewhere.
Among the bigger over-35 names who are UFA (according to CapFriendly) and might not get another deal: Anaheim goalie Ryan Miller, Ottawa defenseman Ron Hainsey and goalie Craig Anderson, Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard and defenseman Trevor Daley, Nashville defenseman Dan Hamhuis, and Toronto center Jason Spezza.
Jay Bouwmeester, whose season was cut short Feb. 11 by a cardiac episode, was undecided on his future after that. Saying he didn’t have another full 82 in him, former Carolina captain Justin Williams took the first half off, and returned to the team Jan. 19.
Hopefully the break will help these players heal, return, and have a satisfying ride into the sunset. The hockey world can use all the positive stories it can get.
While a handful of NBA players — including Celtics guard Marcus Smart — had revealed their positive tests for COVID-19, two NHL players — both unnamed Ottawa Senators — had tested positive as of Saturday morning. The Senators’ last two opponents before the pause, the Kings and Ducks, said none of their players have shown symptoms. The Ducks, whose roster includes ex-Bruins Danton Heinen and David Backes, said their players are quarantined at home. The Bruins’ communications staff did not respond to multiple messages this past week asking if any players, coaches, management, or staff had been tested … The virus has wreaked havoc in the pro game, particularly with ECHL players who don’t make enough playing the game to live nearly as comfortable as their AHL and NHL peers. On the amateur side, it ended the championship dreams of thousands of scholastic hockey players, including high school seniors and collegians who may not get another shot. Cornell University had one of the tougher breaks. Both its men’s and women’s hockey programs were ranked No. 1 in their respective polls — with a combined 56-4-7 record — when the NCAA canceled all winter and spring sports championships. The women, whose season was cut short in the NCAA quarterfinals, had never finished the regular season with a No. 1 ranking. The men, 23-2-4 entering their conference tournament, haven’t been a national powerhouse since Ken Dryden was in net a half-century ago. The NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to athletes in spring sports, since their entire season was canceled. It is not likely to do the same for winter … Surprised to see Canadiens prospect Cole Caulfield stay in school (Wisconsin) after the 19-year-old led the Big Ten in goals (19) and was second in points (36) as a freshman. Much relief for the Badgers, who finished 14-20-2 and last in the conference, and lost two underclassman stars to the pros: 6-foot-5-inch left-shot defenseman K’Andre Miller (Rangers) and center Alex Turcotte (Kings) … In my early 20s during the 2004-05 lockout, I devoured NHL 2K5 on a Playstation 2. That, and street hockey in the driveway, was all that got me through. There was no YouTube. Today’s fans have it easier. Good on the NHL, which along with the other major pro leagues made a heap of its games and content available for free. A February game between the waddling Ducks and woeful Red Wings never looked so appealing … Now, please, go wash your hands and FaceTime your loved ones.
Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.