Straight Jackets: Everything different as hockey returns to the ice

Jim Fischer
Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said the team is adjusting to life under quarantine.

It seems almost impossible to imagine now, but in the second week of March, the Blue Jackets, based on information from the NHL in consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and Public Health Canada, released a statement that the team would hold home games as scheduled on Thursday and Saturday, March 12 and 14, with fans in attendance. This despite a recommendation from Gov. Mike DeWine to hold all indoor sporting events without spectators in response to the COVID-19 spread.

This left a friend and me with a decision to make: “Are we going to the game Saturday?”

We never had to make that decision, of course. Neither game was played, let alone with fans in attendance, as the league and pretty much everything shut down to keep the novel coronavirus from spreading.

It all makes perfectly good sense now. But it’s hard to imagine that there was ever a doubt how serious this virus was, and how dramatically it was going to affect all of our lives. (That there is still, in some quarters, any doubt to these things is unconscionable, but…sigh.)

So here we are, almost five months later, and games are going to resume. There will be no fans in arenas, of course, the number of which has been significantly reduced with all 22 teams resuming play in one of two “bubbles” in Toronto and Edmonton. But, still, we’re getting something I never expected: Hockey on my midsummer birthday.

The Jackets have a warm-up game on Thursday, July 30, against the Boston Bruins, before the team’s best-of-five play-in series with the Toronto Maple Leafs begins on Aug. 2. While the last three months I’ve been concerned with whether the league could pull something like this off, everything appears set, with the handful of COVID-positive cases among players (including Leafs star center Auston Matthews, who was outed by a member of the Canadian sports media) returning from homes around the world presumably resolved and another handful of players opting out of the restart for family and/or health reasons.

So, while it’s fair to suggest the league should have just left the season unfinished, if the next best thing is to get to watch hockey on TV, I guess I’ll take that as a birthday present from the hockey gods.

I’m finding it nearly impossible to get any kind of feel for what’s going to happen on-ice. I’m not given to making predictions anyway, and the unprecedented (a cliche word now in this time of COVID) five-month, middle-of-season layoff just confuses me even more.

The oversimplified version of Jackets-Leafs pits a high-octane, star-forward-laden Toronto offense versus the heavy-hitting, defense-minded underdogs. And it’s not without basis, as the Jackets, much as we love ’em, don’t have the scoring power of Matthews, Mitchell Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander.

But this was the narrative last season as the CBJ headed into its first-round matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and we all remember how that went. Besides, the Leafs and Jackets were tied in the standings when the league suspended play. So don’t be fooled by any superficial comparison. You can bet Pierre-Luc Dubois, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Cam Atkinson, not to mention Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, are going to have something to say about it.

And as is often the case in the playoffs, a hot goalie can make all the difference. As of this writing, Head Coach John Tortorella hadn’t tipped his hand about whether Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins would get the start in net. But if one of them can step up, there’s every reason to like the Jackets’ chances, not just against Toronto but beyond.

That would be a nice present, indeed.