Entering the Mechanics Bank Arena locker room on Monday, Ryan Stanton felt an excitement that had been missing from his life for some time.
Stanton, a defenseman who spent the 2019-20 American Hockey League season in Ontario, is back in Bakersfield after playing for the Condors from 2017-19. Already excited to return to such a familiar setting, world circumstances have made the reunion feel all the more special.
It's been over 10 months since the AHL shut down operations at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. And after a proposed plan to restart the season on Dec. 4 was pushed back, it seemed reasonable to question if the league would be able to have a season at any point in 2021.
But faith has since been restored. The Condors, who will open the regular season on Feb. 5, have returned to Mechanics Bank Arena, holding their first practice of 2021 on Monday.
While a return to the ice has been exciting, Stanton says it's been just as joyous being back in a locker room setting, saying he grew to miss the camaraderie during the extended hiatus.
"There's nothing like being in the dressing room with a group of your teammates," Stanton said. "It's fun getting in there, just telling jokes with the guys and seeing familiar faces. Everyone's chomping at the bit to get going here."
While enjoying the jovial setting the locker room brings, players say there's a high degree of seriousness whenever they're on the ice.
Looking to bounce back from a disappointing 21-27 finish a season ago, the need to get off to a fast start is more important than ever thanks to shortened 40-game schedule that's made the team's margin for error even tighter than usual.
"(The shorter season) kind of helps. The first couple days of camp, we're a lot more dialed in than we usually are," said third-year center Ryan McLeod. "I think everyone's got a little more pep in their step, a little more jump."
That sense of self-motivation is likely to serve the team well.
With state guidelines preventing fans from attending home games, the Condors won't have a rowdy home crowd to play off of during the season, a wrinkle some players admit will take some time adjusting to.
"I always feel that having crowds and having home arena fans is always like having an extra player on the ice," said wing Joe Gambardella, who's been with the Condors since 2016. "Obviously, it’s very unfortunate because we play for the fans, we play for the community. It is a tough thing to kind of swallow.”
But after having their careers derailed for nearly a year, such sacrifices are ones those in the locker room are willing to make.
"It's been a long layoff no one could have predicted or seen coming, but I think from top to bottom, we were all itching to get back at it and we're just grateful to be playing again," Stanton said. "I just want to come out and win some hockey games."
Prior to traveling to face San Diego in their regular season opener on Feb. 5, the Condors will host the Gulls in a preseason matchup at 4 p.m. Sunday.