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10-month wait almost over for NHL nonplayoff teams like Detroit Red Wings

Detroit Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill, center, talks with referee Mike Hasenfratz, right, in the first period of a game against the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Feb. 16. (AP file photo)

By TOM CANAVAN

AP Sports Writer

NEWARK, N.J. — Jack Hughes of the New Jersey Devils hadn’t had a layoff like this since … ever?

More than 100 NHL players from Detroit, New Jersey, Buffalo, Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose and Ottawa have not played a meaningful hockey game since the league paused play in early March because of the pandemic. Ten long months.

“I don’t think I’ve had, I guess, 10 months of no games my whole life,” said the 19-year-old Hughes, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft.

It has been an eternity for Hughes and the rest in a sport predicated on rhythm, repetition and teamwork, a boring stretch unimaginable to athletes whose lives have followed a schedule that has rarely changed for years.

As kids, they played pee-wee hockey at all hours of the day. When the rink wasn’t available, the pond was. The long rides to tournaments, the steady drumbeat of practices and workouts. Most of all, there were games.

The games finally return for everyone with a compressed 56-game season that begins Wednesday. It will be a fresh start for the 24 teams that made the postseason when play resumed Aug. 11. It will be something more than that to the other seven whose players had weeks on end without hockey.

Hughes spent time in Michigan to work out out with his brothers, Quinn of the Vancouver Canucks and Luke, one of the top prospects in juniors. He spent five days a week in the gym and focused on eating healthy to add 14 pounds to his 165-pound frame.

Other players took up hobbies or pumped iron, skated when they could and simply let their bodies heal at a leisurely rate. Devils center Travis Zajac, 35, said he felt great a week into camp.

What’s uncertain is how the teams coming back from the hiatus will perform. Will they be fresher? A step slow?

The Red Wings are eager to start. They had the worst record by far last season and general manager Steve Yzerman didn’t shell out a lot of money in free agency to bring in top talent. Detroit coach Jeff Blashill has held high-intensity practices. He also is hoping the three extra days of practice for non-playoff teams will help.

Forward Drake Batherson, who has skated in 43 games with the Senators over the past two seasons, worked out for two months in Nova Scotia with a group of players that included Sidney Crosby of the Penguins. The 22-year-old arrived for camp in mid-December and his approach has been simple.