CLEVELAND – We are on month nine with no American Hockey League (AHL) hockey. It’s been a long year for fans, players, and organizations alike. Despite the stoppage in play, life still goes on for the players, their families, and the organizations trying to figure out an ever-changing landscape and, at times, a fluid return-to-play plan.
Recently, I sat down (figuratively — we were on Zoom) with Cleveland Monsters forwards Justin Scott & Tyler Sikura and defenseman Dillon Simpson. We talked about offseason preparations, being a free-agent in 2020, and how everyone is navigating the current hockey landscape.
“A Weird, Uncertain Time”
Scott’s words are succinct but can ring true for many of us when talking about 2020, let alone hockey players trying to figure out their offseason training schedules.
Humans, especially professional athletes, are creatures of habit. When preparing for the upcoming season, they craft their training to ensure they are at their physical and mental peak at the beginning of the season. So, how do they handle this when that date keeps moving?
For Scott, he’s found a balance in switching up training at the gym and working on mobility. Not only does this help keep his mind and body fresh, but it also keeps the grind from becoming mentally draining.
Meanwhile, players like Sikura have started new hobbies and passion projects in their time off. He emphasized the importance of not going 100% all the time while finding creative outlets to work on visualization, goal setting, and mental exertion without taking excess tolls on the body.
Keeping the body fresh, according to Sikura, will help him prepare to play whatever games are or the horizon, despite whatever time the AHL crunches them into. Whether it is learning the piano or remodeling a 1983 Fleetwood Terry Taurus trailer with his fiancé, it’s safe to say Sikura is all set in that aspect!
Simpson emphatically echoes the sentiment of staying mentally sharp.
“The mental grind? It’s almost like you have to reset every so often because you are preparing for a certain date, then it gets pushed back. You have to go through a little reset in your mind and then amp it up again.”
He adds that he’s used to the normal ebbs and flows of being a professional hockey player as a veteran, but it is wildly different this year.
A new addition to the Simpson family, a baby girl born on April 1, has presented a new challenge, but one that could not have come at a better time.
“It’s been great for us, being at home with not much going on. It’s been probably the best time to have a little one keeping us up at night,” Simpson laughed.
Training wise, he adds that having a non-moving date for training is vitally important for goal setting. Right now, that stands at February 5, 2021, for the start of the next AHL season. He and other players across the league are finding ways to make it work, though. Some are skating in their regular summer training groups, while others found different ways to get back to their idea of normal.
All three players — Scott, Sikura, and Simpson — were free-agent signings with the Monsters in recent months. Scott and Simpson are returning players to the team. Meanwhile, Sikura is a new addition in his seventh season in the AHL, coming from the Rockford IceHogs.
While their route to the Monsters lineup next season was different, the three all shared one trait: uncertainty surrounding the upcoming season.
Simpson shared that it is a particularly tough market for older players.
“Teams are paralyzed right now, even more so than when free agency first started. Teams aren’t jumping at guys, and some teams are wanting to keep contracts low in case of whatever happens. It’s not like the market isn’t there; it’s just teams aren’t jumping at the bit to sign players with so many uncertainties left over.”
Sikura had the relief of knowing at least one team was interested in him from the opening of the free agency period through to his signing with the Monsters on October 14, 2020. As a city and organization, Cleveland had been on his radar for some time as a potential destination.
“Well, I’m an Ontario boy, so it’s close to home, first off. That was always something that was appealing. My family and my fiancé and her family have come to watch me play in Cleveland. Obviously, you are at an incredible arena, and I know several of the guys on the team. They speak so highly of it. I always had positive feelings. I always thought Cleveland might be a place that, if things were to line up at the right time, that I would enjoy playing there.
“Sure enough, when the AHL free agency opened, they were the first team to reach out. We were in constant communication, and what I think I’ve learned over the years is that you go where you are wanted. My communication throughout the pandemic, especially when there was nothing else going on, seemed constant and like a good fit. It seems all around like a perfect spot.”
Scott agrees that returning to Cleveland was vital for him even with all the uncertainty. He sees the city as a second home, and he is excited to remain with the Monsters organization.
Monsters Players Navigating 2020’s Muddy Waters
Despite all of their struggles and difficulty navigating the muddy water that has been 2020 and the stoppage of hockey, all three players appear confident and excited to hit the ice. They agreed that they could not wait to get out in front of the fans, however that may look.
Whether they are a new teammate or have been with the organization previously, they are well prepared and doing the best with what this offseason has thrown at them.
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