As the season grows long and winter turns to spring, as focus shifts to the standings and minds start creeping toward the Calder Cup Playoffs, the grind can be taxing.
It’s what fans don’t see that can take a toll – climbing onto busses in the cold before the sun comes up or just after everyone has left the arena on a game night and up the 5 to Sacramento International Airport or down the 99 to Bakersfield. Still, over these 10 months since Stockton last took the ice for a game, Heat head coach Cail MacLean can’t help but miss it.
“The idea of being able to gather with your group, the way we move from place to place, looking at it now it’s fun, it’s really fun,” he said. “You miss that a lot, the banter that goes on between the coaching staff and the support staff and the players. I think everyone really misses it, the camaraderie.”
When the Heat gather once again for the 2021 season, much will have changed since March 12, 2020, when the AHL announced a suspension of the season at the infancy of a pandemic that flipped many aspects of life upside down for everyone. The suspension eventually was extended indefinitely before the league called it a season amidst ongoing safety concerns related to COVID-19.
Then the calendar hit the summer months, August turned to September and the normal hockey calendar remained up in the air.
“The small world of hockey, the end of development that we live in, the pandemic created a situation that we’ve learned a lot from,” said MacLean. “In the long run, it’ll make everyone better having had to deal with the unknown, the perseverance and resilience that was required of all of us.
March 12 is a date we won’t forget any time soon.”
On December 30, the AHL announced that the Board of Governors had approved the framework for a season starting on February 5. For MacLean and many around the AHL world, it was a welcome announcement.
It was also a starting point for the 2021 campaign, a sign that it was time to get to work.
The Heat bench boss is hardly a newcomer in the coaching ranks. His time behind the bench in a professional hockey setting dates back to 2008. Still, nothing could have prepared him, or any coach, for what lies ahead.
Things will be different this year, make no mistake. Meetings that used to include the whole team now will mostly take place virtually or in small groups. Ice time to fine-tune skills and off-ice workouts may be split throughout the roster. With safety at the forefront, the task for the staff and leadership of the Heat is clear: help the team get close while remaining physically distant.
It’s a challenge the Heat bench boss is embracing.
“I like to be around the guys, I like to interact with them and to teach. That’s what I really enjoy about the profession, the time spent discussing things with players, whether it’s about the game or about life. To limit that, that’s going to be a challenge.
One of the thing that brings us into that dressing room is we all love to be in a team setting. It’ll be a challenge to tighten up our communications and to be efficient in that respect. It’ll be a challenge to create the connections without having the luxury of as much face-to-face interaction as we’re used to.”
An additional hurdle for MacLean and all AHL coaches to clear this season will be the newly-added Taxi Squad, a safety net for NHL teams to put a full complement of players on the ice with last-minute adjustments. The new grouping figures to be an intriguing watch for hockey fans as all teams juggle priorities between keeping top prospects close to the NHL club, ready for call-up at a moment’s notice, and getting them game experience to continue their growth.
For Stockton, MacLean explains, it will be about maintaining a standard regardless of who is on the ice on the night – an expectation of professionalism and mental toughness up and down the roster.
“Again, any volatility is only more opportunity for guys in Stockton at the moment,” he said.
So how does a coach keep his team progressing through a season no one has experienced, rolling with the punches as they come into what is essentially a freshman campaign for all involved?
“The best way to do that is to communicate openly, not in a one-way type but discussing (concerns) from all angles. If we have players that have been affected in any way through the pandemic, how have they been affected?
We want our people to understand that and we want people to think about more than themselves, both inside our group and in the community as a whole.
That’s what it’s all about.’