The Flyers will open the NHL season with a visit from the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday. Fingers crossed. The Cleveland Browns will play their first NFL playoff game in 18 years on Sunday, but their coach is not allowed to attend. The Sixers on Saturday played an NBA game without four players because of COVID-19 contact tracing.
If there’s one thing this disease continues to teach the athletic world is that flexibility is as important as jockstraps and sports bras. As John Lennon once sang, life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
“You can’t just bury your head in the sand,” said forward James van Riemsdyk, the Flyers’ union representative. “There are things going on in the world and in our league with some of this stuff. First and foremost, with all of these protocols, we’re trying to maintain the safety of everyone and their families. Do what we can as far as wear a mask around the rink, maintain distance from people.”
The Penguins canceled their practice on Saturday morning because of possible exposure to the coronavirus. The cancellation was dubbed precautionary, but it’s another example how tenuous things are in bringing all of these athletes together outside of a controlled setting.
Generally, teams will play 6-8 preseason games to tune up for the regular season. That’s not happening this year. Best the Flyers are going to do is hold an intrasquad scrimmage at the Wells Fargo Center on Sunday before starting the season Wednesday against their rivals from across the state.
“I’m kind of excited even if it is just a scrimmage,” said defenseman Erik Gustafsson, the only notable addition to Alain Vigneault’s club this offseason. “It’s like a real game: having a morning skate, going home [in the afternoon] and then being ready for a game at night. It’s going to be huge for me but the whole team, too.”
In Vigneault’s first season as coach last year, the Flyers held their morning practices on game days at the Wells Fargo Center. The coach had to change that this season and instead will send the players to the practice facility in Voorhees on game days because it’s easier to conduct the daily COVID testing at the South Jersey facility.
The intrasquad game on Sunday night (7 p.m., NBCSP) should help the players establish a routine ahead of the season-opening four-game homestand. It also will give Vigneault his last best look at his roster. Flyers players are off on Monday, and Tuesday will be a standard practice.
“We’ve been evaluating in practice, but [Sunday’s] a big night,” Vigneault said. “It’s an important night for a lot of players. It’s not just about the starting lineup but where they are on our depth chart. How do we feel that we can utilize these guys moving forward?”
Van Riemsdyk recalled the summer when the Flyers had one exhibition game before starting a round-robin series against Boston, Tampa Bay and Washington to determine playoff seedings.
“We were in the bubble, so we have a little bit of experience with it,” he said. “It’s the world we live in right now. To be able to play and get our season going, we realize there are some different things that make things unique and present different challenges. You’ve just got to be able to roll with it and be professional.”
Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere and forward Wade Allison were among those “unfit to participate” in practice on Saturday. Their availability for Sunday’s scrimmage is unclear. ... Forwards Tanner Laczynski and Isaac Ratcliffe, and goalie Kirill Ustimenko also missed practice on Saturday.