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Area NHL players ready for unusual return to ice after months-long layoff

UPDATED: Thu., July 30, 2020

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

The “where” of the National Hockey League’s restart isn’t particularly unfamiliar to Derek Ryan.

But the “when?” Not so much.

“It’s weird to be on the ice and playing games in late July, soon to be August,” Ryan said from the Western Conference bubble in Edmonton, Alberta. “But at the same time, once you get together with the guys and with the team, it feels kinda normal after a couple of days.”

The Calgary Flames forward is one of three Spokane natives whose hockey seasons are restarting this week, along with Edmonton Oilers winger Kailer Yamamoto and Tampa Bay Lightning veteran Tyler Johnson.

On Saturday, the fifth-seeded Oilers begin a best-of-five series against the Chicago Blackhawks at noon. At 7:30 p.m. later that day, the No. 8 Flames and No. 9 Jets open their best-of-five. Series winners advance to a more traditional eight-team playoff from there, and the losers are out.

Tampa Bay, playing in the Eastern Conference bubble in Toronto, has already secured a spot in the eight-team playoff and will instead begin with a round-robin tournament with the other top four teams to determine seeding.

The NHL has never hosted such a 12-team playoff event before, and Ryan is trying to make the most of it.

“It’s definitely a weird and unique experience coming here and being on lockdown,” Ryan said. “I’m just trying to take it all in.”

The Flames held training camp in Calgary, Alberta, and arrived in Edmonton earlier this week, Ryan said. Since then, he has been tested for COVID-19 daily.

Most of his days have been spent inside, though there is a courtyard outside Rogers Place, the hockey arena, for players to “sit and get some Vitamin D,” he said.

The time off has given players the opportunity to get healthy. At the same time, Ryan said, it’s different having such a long layoff and then stepping into the intensity of a playoff series.

The Flames held three intrasquad scrimmages during their training camp in Calgary but had just one exhibition match this week – a 4-1 loss to Edmonton – to get tuned up for live action against another opponent.

There is also the oddity of playing in an empty arena.

“It’s weird, like the beginning parts of the game, the anthem … the TV timeouts and the stoppages where it’s usually pretty loud,” Ryan said. “Once the puck is dropped and in the middle of the play, it’s the same. We’re usually blocking out the fans pretty good when we’re on the ice.”

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