RALEIGH — It had been nearly six months since the media saw Dougie Hamilton on the ice at PNC Arena. But there he was Monday, running drills alongside defense partner Jaccob Slavin as the Carolina Hurricanes kicked off Phase 3 of the NHL’s return-to-play plan, the closest thing to live hockey anyone has seen since the season was paused March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s awkward but true: So much and so little has happened in the more than 120 days since the league — and the sports world — shut down.
As for Hamilton, the last time we saw him he was still cruising through the Hurricanes’ locker room on a knee scooter, recovering from surgery for the broken fibula he suffered in Columbus on Jan. 17.
Since then, Carolina lost Brett Pesce to a shoulder injury and added two more defensemen, Morgan Geekie stunningly scored three goals and four points in his first two NHL games, and the Hurricanes were one of two teams to vote against the league’s return-to-play format.
Hamilton even fit in a last-minute Big Rock fishing trip with teammate Andrei Svechnikov and his brother, Red Wings forward Evgeny Svechnikov, before things started to really ramp up.
“He got a shark,” Hamilton said of his teammate. “That was his dream.”
Now the dream is to win a Stanley Cup, even in the oddest of seasons.
“It’s back on,” captain Jordan Staal said. “We’re back on the ice, and we’re fighting for a chance at a Cup.”
The Hurricanes have 29 players preparing for the team’s five-game play-in series against the New York Rangers, which will begin Aug. 1 at the NHL’s Toronto hub. The biggest surprise on the roster was the inclusion of 2019 first-round pick Ryan Suzuki, who spent the season with OHL’s Barrie Colts but will now have the opportunity to practice with the team as it prepares for what it hopes is a long run.
“You want to get these guys understanding what it’s like to be a professional, but more importantly … what we expect and what we’re about,” coach Rod Brind’Amour said in a Zoom call following Tuesday’s two practice sessions. “And you can’t really do that if you’re not here. And so, getting him going — we know he’s young. We know he’s a ways away, but it’s certainly not going to hurt him to be around and just get a taste of what we’re all about.”
Vatanen, acquired from the Devils at the trade deadline, is also getting a feel for his new team, having not played since the Feb. 24 deal due to injury.
“Well, it’s been a little weird,” Vatanen said Tuesday of his delay in joining his new team on the ice. “I came here and was (mentally) ready to play, but I wasn’t able to. It was unfortunate that the season got a little bit postponed.”
He does have one crutch to lean on: for the first time since early in his Ducks career, Vatanen is playing with some of his countrymen, joining Finns Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen.
“I haven’t played with the Finns in a long, long time,” Vatanen said Tuesday. “I played a little bit when I got into the league with Teemu (Selanne) and Saku (Koivu), but after that, I haven’t played with any Finns. So it’ll be nice to play with these two guys, see them every day.”
Vatanen was brought in as a replacement for Hamilton, but with both now healthy — Vatanen says he “feels 100%” while Hamilton said he’s “still not perfect” but improving daily — the Hurricanes have eight healthy defensemen even with Brett Pesce still out.
“Once we get through this 2½ weeks, I’ve got to play the best guy,” said Brind’Amour who added that chemistry will certainly be a factor. “So whoever we think looks the best or feels the best, it’s probably who we’re going to go with.”
There are plenty of factors that normally wouldn’t come into play that will in the league’s comeback. For one, the games will be played without fans, meaning teams won’t have the crowd to give them momentum or tip off players.
“The good news is both teams are in the exact same boat on that,” Brind’Amour said Tuesday. “So it’s not like it’s an advantage or disadvantage for anybody. It’s just, that’ll be a huge adjustment, I think, and it’s kind of hard to explain.
“The way I would describe it is,” Brind’Amour added, “when you play, the crowd actually helps you anticipate and helps you. … There’s little cues that the crowd actually gives you that actually help you in the game, and that’s going to be not there. And so guys are gonna have to adjust. But that’ll be very, very interesting to see which team does that.”
Teams have also been taking precautions to prevent a team-wide outbreak, and things will be even stricter once they enter the Toronto bubble. That will be a big adjustment, especially for players who have returned from other countries where the virus in under control.
“We basically don’t have it back home in Finland,” Aho said of COVID-19. “The situation over there is pretty good. Life is, I guess, pretty normal. Everything’s open now. … Being here, I don’t go anyplace. I’ve just been coming to the rink and go home and stay there. Maybe play a little golf, but that’s about it. You can really not see any people and, try to be safe that way.”
While things are and will be different, the team is still trying to prepare for the task ahead and maintain its enthusiasm for hockey’s return.
“To be honest with you almost feel like I wish we could play in about three days because I feel like that the energy is perfect right now,” Brind’Amour said.
“Ask me that again in probably three days,” he added.