The Halifax Mooseheads were back on the ice at home Thursday night, taking on their provincial rival, the Cape Breton Eagles, in a pre-season game before an empty arena at their practice facility in Burnside.
It was the first game Mooseheads have played at home since March, when COVID-19 abruptly cancelled the season, playoffs and Memorial Cup.
But now the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) is gearing up for its regular season to return in October, a milestone many in the Halifax locker room have been looking forward to since the coronavirus pandemic hit.
“It’s been very difficult emotionally and mentally for everyone over the last six months,” said Mooseheads general manager Cam Russell. “For these kids, getting on the ice is their therapy, and being around the team and being around their friends is exactly what they needed. It’s what we all needed.”
When the puck drops on the regular season, the calibre of play will be the same as it ever was but everything else around the rink will be different.
As the Mooseheads battled Cape Breton Thursday night, there were no spectators allowed in the rink.
On the bench, the coaches all wore masks and safety glasses.
A trainer used a piece of two-sided tape to hold the mask to assistant coach Sylvain Favreau’s face so his safety goggles wouldn’t fog up.
The stands were empty except for the camera crew who donned masks, and it was the same for the statisticians and players watching along.
There’s a long list of safety protocols the teams must follow in order to play.
“Every player that comes in and every staff member that comes in have their temperature taken each morning,” said Russell. “People that come to the rink that want to watch the games have their temperature taken and they have to fill out questionnaires, it’s a lot of work.”
It can be tedious work and there are no shortcuts, says Russell — it’s all necessary to allow the games to go on.
This season the Mooseheads will play in a Maritime division, exclusive to teams in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and P.E.I. It’s a move to cut down on traffic and overnight stays in hotels.
Mooseheads defenceman Justin Barron has been eager to get the season going. For him and the rest of the team, it’s been a long layoff.
“Just being cooped up in your own house for so long and stuff, your mind almost starts to wander a little bit and so you’re just kind of hoping you’ll be back at a certain time,” said Barron. “After that, it was just trying to remain optimistic and hope the season will start on time.”
The QMJHL will begin play in October but the Ontario Hockey League and Western Hockey League aren’t as fortunate — they won’t begin play until December — so there will be a lot of eyes on teams here.
“It’s a great opportunity for us and for our league, we are definitely doing all the right protocols and everything to make sure we stay safe and everything goes as smooth as possible,” said Barron.
For Barron this is a big year. He missed three months of hockey last season as he battled back from a blood clot that kept him off the ice. The 18-year-old Halifax native has aspirations to be a top pick in this year’s National Hockey League draft.
“Missing the three months and all those games last year kind of sucked obviously,” said Barron. “It’s one of those things that kind of happens, so hopefully I’ll be able to get a few games in here before the draft happens and get to show myself and show the progress I’ve made over the summer in the gym and on the ice.”
Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang has approved the return-to-play plan for both Cape Breton and Halifax.
The Mooseheads will reveal their return-to-play protocol for their fans and those who wish to attend home games during a press conference scheduled for Tuesday next week.
The Mooseheads begin the season on the road when they travel to Cape Breton on Oct. 2. They return home the next day to host the Eagles in their home opener on Oct. 3.