The NHL season resumes Saturday, and the restart will be like nothing ever seen.
Sixteen teams begin Stanley Cup qualifying rounds in Toronto and Edmonton without spectators, high-fives or fist bumps, and with officials seated in the penalty box wearing masks and gloves. Forget about the traditional suit-and-tie game-day dress code – players can wander into Scotiabank Arena and Rogers Place in shorts and flip flops if they prefer. It is summer hockey, which is odd enough, but also in the midst of a pandemic. That is why no games will be contested in the United States, where COVID-19 has claimed more than 150,000 lives and still goes unchecked.
So much has happened since the season was suspended on March 12 because of the spread of the novel coronavirus. It was hard to know then what would transpire, but few likely expected it would be five months before the puck dropped again.
The Stanley Cup play-ins will begin with salutes to health care workers and social activists and with players wearing helmet decals in support of Black Lives Matter. Within the arenas, the message #WeSkateFor Black Lives will be displayed on digital screens and seat coverings. It recognizes racial inequality after unarmed Black men died at the hands of white police officers and vigilantes in the United States.
The NHL’s rejigged playoff format features two dozen teams – eight more than usual – equally split between East and West hub cities. Players have been in lockdown since Sunday, with teams each confined to one floor in four hotels. The Maple Leafs are staying at the Fairmont Royal York, a short walk to their home rink. Neither they nor the Oilers have a home-ice advantage – at times each will be the visitor in their own city.
Toronto was the visiting team in an exhibition game on Tuesday against Montreal. The Canadiens used the Maple Leafs’ dressing room and were surrounded by historic pictures from the franchise’s greatest moments.
“2020 has been strange, and that may have been the strangest thing we’ve been through yet,” said Brendan Gallagher, the Montreal forward.
Toronto and Edmonton worked hard to one-up one another during the bidding process to be chosen the host site in Canada. Both ended up winners when Las Vegas, which had already been selected as a hub city, fell from favour because of an increase in cases of the respiratory illness.
In a fun twist, all but one of seven Canadian teams – the Ottawa Senators – will compete in the 2020 playoffs. All six are in the opening best-of-five qualifying round, with Toronto facing the Columbus Blue Jackets, Edmonton playing the Chicago Blackhawks, the Montreal Canadiens against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Winnipeg Jets facing the Calgary Flames, and the Vancouver Canucks playing the Minnesota Wild. Every game will be televised. With a staggered schedule, the first on Saturday starts at noon and the last won’t be over until at least 1 a.m. There will be so much hockey aired this weekend that NBC Sports is advertising its coverage as “24 Hours of Hockey.”
The Maple Leafs share the Royal York with the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders, Blue Jackets, Florida Panthers, New York Rangers and Canadiens. The other East teams are at the Hotel X on the lakefront in a campus set up on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition.
In Edmonton, an Olympic-style village has been established around Rogers Place and the Ice District downtown. A half-dozen teams, including the Oilers, are staying at the JW Marriott in a skyscraper attached by a pedway to the arena. The entire area where teams are staying is walled off to ensure fans can’t get in and players can’t get out.
If the restrictions seem onerous, it is important to note that the hubs are full of amenities. In Edmonton, players can entertain themselves shooting baskets, playing on golf simulators, eating at food trucks, restaurants and a pop-up sushi stand. In both places, players are being tested for the novel coronavirus each day.
If the surroundings in Edmonton are a bit peculiar for most everybody else, they are nothing out of the ordinary for Oilers coach Dave Tippett.
“In actual fact, I live full time in the bubble,” Tippett said during a video call on Thursday, acknowledging he has a residence in the 66-storey tower that is also home to the JW Marriott. “It hasn’t changed that much for me, other than not having the freedom to go to the grocery store and things like that.
“Probably, for a lot of hockey players, this is like a kids’ tournament. There are lots of teams around and everybody is excited to play.”
In both cities, players spent the first few days acclimatizing and getting used to new routines. Each team played one exhibition game in otherwise empty arenas.
“It is really different on a variety of levels,” says John Tavares, the Toronto captain. “We are staying in a hotel even though this is our home city. There are things you are used to hearing inside the arena and now you don’t.
“You have to adapt and expect the unpredictable and just be able to deal with it. If certain games go into overtime and push the starting times back it is something you’ve never dealt with before. A lot of different things could happen. You just have to be open-minded and adjust on the fly.”
Edmonton goalie Mike Smith will never forget skating onto the ice for an exhibition against the Flames on Tuesday. The Oilers play for the first time in the qualifying round against Chicago on Saturday.
“To be honest, it felt like the Twilight Zone for a little bit,” the 38-year-old netminder said. “Everyone was skating around trying to figure out what it was going to be like with nobody in the arena. It was definitely one of the oddest games I have played in the NHL.”
Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler said things felt normal on Wednesday as soon as the Jets’ exhibition game against the Canucks began. Then there was a stoppage in play.
“Once there was a TV timeout, it got kind of crazy,” Wheeler said. “I felt like we needed to do some trivia or something to keep everyone involved.”
The Jets begin their qualifying-round series against Calgary on Saturday night. “I am excited, and I am hoping we are in Edmonton for a long, long time,” Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice said. “It’s like an enormous summer camp.”
Few journalists will be on hand to watch the games. Interviews afterward will be conducted by Zoom, as they have been for a while, with newsmen and women able to see players and coaches but not the other way around.
“It feels like I am talking to myself up here,” Bruce Cassidy, the Bruins coach, said this week.
Toronto begins its postseason quest on Sunday night, facing an opponent in Columbus that it has not seen since October. The Maple Leafs bowed out in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in each of the past three years.
“We are a hungry group,” said Jake Muzzin, Toronto’s veteran defenceman. “There has been a lot of talk about taking the next step and we are committed to doing that. We have lots to prove going into the playoffs, and the team is ready.”
John Tortorella, the prickly Columbus coach, already seemed to be in postseason form this week. Asked what kind of discussions he has had with his players, he lashed out.
“It’s none of your business,” he said.
One thing is for certain, however, Tortorella said.
“Everybody is sick of practising, I can tell you that,” he said. “They want to play a game.”
It is time for them to begin.