EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers returned to the ice Monday, but not before taking time to remember and pay tribute to teammate Colby Cave, who died in April after suffering a brain bleed.
"It's the first time we've all been together in a big group since Colby passed. Obviously those emotions are still fresh," team captain Connor McDavid told reporters on a Zoom call after practice at Rogers Place.
"It makes it even more real now that we're all together and he's not able to join us.
"He's obviously going to be in our thoughts and in our hearts as we go forward."
Cave, from Battleford, Sask., died April 11 in a Toronto hospital while in a medically induced coma following surgery to remove a colloid cyst that was causing pressure on his brain.
He played 67 career NHL games for the Boston Bruins and the Edmonton Oilers. The centre was called up for 11 games by the Oilers last season.
When the Oilers skated out before for their first official return to play practice, the scoreboard above centre ice displayed a picture of Cave in his orange Oiler uniform high-fiving fans beside the message "We Skate for Colby."
Head coach Dave Tippett said the team held a meeting about Cave's death prior to practice.
"Colby was an unbelievable young man, great teammate. Obviously a friend to everybody in our locker room," said Tippett.
"He would be with us today if he hadn't passed. He planned to be with our group (for the upcoming Stanley Cup tournament).
"He's with us in spirit."
The COVID-19 virus kept Cave's wife Emily from his bedside and continues to cast a long shadow over the NHL as it prepares to finish the season with 24 teams playing in isolation in two hub cities: Edmonton and Toronto.
Players are allowed to opt out without sanction. Oiler defenceman Mike Green has already announced he will sit out, citing personal family health reasons.
Asked about it, Tippett said, "(The decision) didn't catch me off guard.
"(Green) was really struggling with the decision, but he decided that for personal reasons with his family it was the best situation for him, and you have to respect that.
"This is unprecedented times. You've got to allow for flexibility."
The first day of camp saw Ryan Nugent-Hopkins playing on a wing with Connor McDavid and Zack Kassian.
The Oilers open the best-of-five qualifying round Aug. 1 vs. the Chicago Blackhawks.
Their fortunes will rise or fall with McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who was crowned the regular season scoring champ after the season was suspended March 12, around the 70-game mark.
Nugent-Hopkins said while on hiatus he used some weights from his brother, did some roller blading and then began skating once the smaller rinks opened up in British Columbia.
The tournament will be a whirlwind, sometimes with three games a day in each of the hub cities with no fans cheering them on.
Nugent-Hopkins said there won't be any home ice advantage.
"We know it's going to be intense," he said.
"There's going to be a lot of energy. Without the fans we'll have to find ways to create our own energy."
Kassian said the practices are critical because there is very little runway before the games resume.
"There's no team that's ahead of any other team in this thing. Whoever comes in and whoever competes the hardest, whoever gets off on the right foot is going to have the most success, especially in these best-of-five series," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 13, 2020.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press