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Panthers arrive in strange new world, adjusting quickly to Toronto safety bubble

Aaron Ekblad returns to practice, won't play Wednesday vs. Lightning

Florida Panthers players participate in a practice at the Ford Performance Centre in Toronto, Ontario on July 27, 2020.
Florida Panthers players participate in a practice at the Ford Performance Centre in Toronto, Ontario on July 27, 2020. (Florida Panthers)

TORONTO – Toronto is considered by many as the hockey capital of the world, and there isn't a player or coach on the Florida Panthers that hasn't been there countless times before. 

Whether it happens while playing in the NHL, the minors, juniors, or perhaps a youth travel tournament, a pro hockey players' path, at one point or another, is going to find its way through Toronto. 

This time around, however, these veterans of Hogtown (if you're not familiar with one of the city's oldest and best-known nicknames, it's worth a Google) are arriving to a metropolitan hub unlike anything they've ever experienced, regardless of how many times they've been there. 

"I've never seen a place where you have to go through security to leave the hotel, but you don't have to go through security to get into the hotel," said Florida Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville.

Indeed, strict health guidelines are being closely enforced and monitored as the NHL attempts to hold a 24-team postseason inside artificial (and in some ways, physical) safety bubbles amid a global pandemic that has badly impacted the United States. 

Daily temperature checks and health screenings are just part of the new protocol that all NHL personnel living in the safety zone, which includes around 50 players, coaches and vital staff members from each team, are now subject to. 

It's a major overhaul that has taken literally thousands of people to pull off, but team personnel realize that it's all being done for their protection, which is why the overwhelming response has been one of appreciation rather than annoyance. 

"I think the NHL did a really good job," Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau said during the team's first Zoom meeting from the bubble on Monday. "I think [the key] is just to follow the protocol. Obviously, you wear a mask, there's a lot of security, you take your temperature every morning. It's well organized and I think if we follow the protocol, we're going to be good to go and play all these games."

At least early on, teams have been kept away from each other, with the league designating specific times for each club to enjoy particular amenities, like restaurants and other public spaces. 

Being told where to go and what to do isn't always going to be received well, but in this case, the less players have to worry about their safety and the more they can focus on the task at hand, the better. 

"There are certain times you have to be in certain areas, and I think they've done a really good job with that so far," said Panthers center Noel Acciari. "It's day one, but it's pretty strict."

Considering how much planning goes into every little aspect of the hub city safety zones, it's been a pretty seamless transition despite nearly 1,300 people suddenly arriving at the delicately crafted bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton. 

At least from the Panthers perspective, popping into the bubble has been a pleasant experience thus far. 

"A lot of moving parts here, and I think everybody has been accommodating on both sides of it," said Quenneville. "I think it made for an interesting couple of days, but it's gone very smooth."

EKBLAD RETURNS

The Panthers held their first bubble practice on Monday at the Ford Performance Centre, which doubles as the Toronto Maple Leafs official training facility. It's about a 15 minute bus ride from Florida's temporary home at the Royal York Hotel.

Taking part in his first practice in nearly a week was defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who had missed the last three on-ice sessions due to an undisclosed injury. 

"We've been cautious with him over the last few days, but he wanted to practice in the worst way, so he was out there today," Quenneville said of Ekblad. "He got across the barrier and he's good to go."

Ekblad will be held out of Wednesday's exhibition game against Tampa Bay only as a precaution, instead getting in a light skate on his own while his teammates take part in their one and only tune-up opportunity. 

Still, seeing Ekblad back in action had to be a relief for his fellow Panthers, as the six-year veteran has been a steady force on the blue line, leading the team in ice time in each of the past three seasons. He put up a career high 41 points this year despite playing a career low 67 games.

"He is a big piece on our team, so it was good to have him back," Huberdeau said of Ekblad. "He looked good on the ice today."

BOB NOMINATED FOR KING CLANCY 

On Monday the NHL announced each team's nomination for the King Clancy Memorial Trophy. 

For Florida, that man was goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. 

The King Clancy Trophy has been awarded annually since 1988 to the player that best exemplifies leadership on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution to a particular cause or community. 

Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky takes part in a practice at the Ford Performance Centre in Toronto, Ontario on July 27, 2020.
Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky takes part in a practice at the Ford Performance Centre in Toronto, Ontario on July 27, 2020. (Florida Panthers)

Previous nominees of the Panthers include Mike Matheson, Roberto Luongo and fan favorite Erik Gudbranson.

The three finalists for the award will be announced in early August and the winner will be revealed sometime during the conference finals. 

THE WEEK AHEAD 

As part of the Phase 4 protocol, all teams must take one day off during the first four days inside the quarantine bubble. 

For the Panthers, that day is Tuesday. 

After arriving in Toronto Sunday afternoon and jumping right into a Monday workday of meetings and practice, taking some time to let things settle and get better acclimated to their new surroundings seems like a wise move on the part of the coaching staff. 

Following the day of rest and relaxation, Florida will play its lone exhibition game on Wednesday against the Lightning, with the puck dropping at high noon. 

Thursday and Friday are scheduled practice days, followed by Game 1 vs. the Islanders on Saturday at 4 p.m.

“The exhibition is going to be good to get our legs going, and after we just have to focus on Game 1 and win this one,” said Huberdeau.


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