With a season different than anyone imagined, the North Bay Battalion hockey team is eager to get back on the ice.
"It’s tough," said defenceman Simon Rose. "You play hockey your whole life. It’s kind of a system. Like we have hockey in the winter, it starts up in August, your mind's kind of used to that and this is the longest I’ve ever been away from hockey."
The 2019-2020 Ontario Hockey League season was cut short by about six games due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020-2021 season hasn’t been able to start at all yet leaving most of the Battalion team not even in the city.
"Outside of the local, Reece Proulx, nobody’s in North Bay," said General Manager Adam Dennis. "We haven’t been able to get them there. Everybody’s been in their home centres and you know, they’ve been keeping tabs and we’ve been doing a lot of stuff virtually, just to try and do some team-building things like that."
This includes new draft picks who haven’t got the chance to be with the team or in the city as of yet, according to Dennis.
However, despite the distance between players and the non-existing season to date, the team is finding ways to stay connected.
"We have like a team group chat and the boys talk about it all the time, things going on in each others' lives," Rose said. "Sundays, we’ll have team Zoom calls and go over systems and videos and things in the NHL and things like that."
Adding that "we’re all just trying to be positive with each other. We’ve got a couple of guys in the AHL (American Hockey League) and it's just, you know, being a part of their journey and just keeping in touch with them. It’s good."
Even the coaches have found a way to stay connected and continue to give guidance and direction off the ice.
"It’s really hard on players right now because for their entire careers they’ve been told when to go on the ice, when to stay off the ice, when to everything, you know. Everything is direction-based and there’s not a lot of direction right now," Dennis said. "So what we’ve been trying to do is fill all those gaps, and Zoom calls, taking calls with players individually, trying to create some opportunities where they can compete a little bit [with] each other with some team-building challenges."
Dennis said right now everything is still up in the air, including a return to ice date and where the OHL teams will be able to play if given the green light. However, the City of North Bay made the decision on Friday to pull the ice out of Memorial Gardens and the Pete Palagnio arenas in light of the shutdown extension.
"I mean, you know, you understand it," said Dennis following this announcement. "It’s a difficult time for everybody. The pandemic has caused a lot of issues financially for a lot of different businesses and, you know, the one thing that’s clear is there’s nobody on the ice at Memorial Gardens to use it."
He said that when and if the season can start that he suspects there will be some discussion with both the city and the Ontario Hockey League.
"We’re going to take it as it comes and we’ll react accordingly," Dennis said.
For now, players are at home waiting for an update and trying to stay game-ready for when the time comes to lace up their skates again.
"The work that they’re doing isn’t going to be wasted," said Dennis. "The gains that they can make off the ice in terms of strengthening themselves and, you know, we’ve been having a book club share too, so improving the mind as well. All of our kids are doing some type of schooling, so there’s a lot of other ways that you can improve yourself and that’s not going to be lost when we get back on the ice."
Despite the disappointment and the long waiting game, Rose said he’s staying ready with a lot weighing on this hopeful season.
"This would have been my fourth year with the team," said Rose. "So I’d have an overage year next year too, but that fourth year is a big year. It’s your last year of eligibility for the drafts and just moving into a bigger role on the team. Being my fourth year, I would have been the oldest defenceman on the team, so it would have been a huge step for my career personally."
He said when the season starts teams will have to be ready.
"It’s going to be a different mindset to [this year]. Like it’s not a 64 game season, it’s going to be something short," Rose said. "You’re going to have to be dialed in right away and I think there’s going to be big benefits from that and all the training we’ve been putting in."