Physically distanced team meetings and workouts. No self-serve buffets outside dressing rooms; food in individual servings only. Carefully marked water bottles.
These are just a few examples of how business isn’t usual at the start of this NHL season.
“There wouldn’t be any part of our routine that looks like it did in the past,” said Paul Maurice, the coach of the Winnipeg Jets. “There are individual water bottles, individual everything. My mask goes on before I leave a room or walk into another one. Everything is different.”
There is little room for fraternization during the initial road trips. For a long time, players have used them as an occasion to bond. Those trips will be shorter now, and measures to protect against the spread of COVID-19 make hanging out or horsing around difficult.
“There is really not a whole lot to do because of the protocols,” John Tavares, the Toronto captain, said before the Maple Leafs travelled to Ottawa for games on Friday and Saturday. “We’re just trying to get through the circumstances. There isn’t anyplace to go eat.”
It is not a complaint but the new reality for the NHL. Teams are not restricted to protective bubbles as they were during last year’s playoffs, but everyone is in survival mode. Secret germ shelters might be under construction beneath rinks throughout the league.
As of Friday, there were only two teams yet to drop the puck – the COVID-stricken Dallas Stars and the Florida Panthers, the opponent they were supposed to face.
Other things are the same old, same old.
Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers scored three times in a 5-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday night. On one of the scores, he streaked up the ice leaving vapour trails behind him and tread marks all over Alex Edler, the helpless defenceman in his path.
“I wouldn’t want to be the guy standing on the blueline with Connor coming at me at 100 miles per hour,” said McDavid’s yang to his yin, Leon Draisaitl. “It is so hard to defend against him.”
Draisaitl had assists on four of the five goals. There is nothing surprising about that, either. The big German forward led the NHL in points last season. McDavid was the runner-up.
The hockey has been different and it has been great – especially within the new all-Canadian North Division.
The Oilers and Canucks split their first two of 10 games against one another. The Jets beat the Calgary Flames in overtime on Thursday. The Maple Leafs edged out the Montreal Canadiens on opening night, also in extra time.
Fans are loving it. They may not be able to watch in person, but they are tuning in like never before. Perhaps something has kept them cooped up for the past 10 months.
The debut of the Canadian division opened with two games on Sportsnet with overall coverage reaching 6.6 million viewers – the most in the network’s history. The first meeting between Toronto and Montreal drew an average of 2.1 million viewers – the most-watched regular-season game aired exclusively on Sportsnet – and an additional average of 919,000 on TVA Sports. Combined across the English and French networks, the game had 3.057 million viewers. That is 83 per cent more than the average-minute audience of last season’s opener between the Maple Leafs and the Senators.
In Toronto, Wayne Simmonds got into a scrum around the Montreal net with Ben Chiarot. It ended up with the latter on the ground after receiving three haymakers. In Winnipeg, a melee broke out when Calgary’s Noah Hanifin sent Kyle Connor into the boards. Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine, who is not much of a pugilist, leaped to his teammate’s defence. Laine was beet-faced and yapping as he was escorted away.
In both cases, it was the first of 10 games between them.
We haven’t even seen the Oilers play the Flames yet, games which morph into a combination of roller derby and a UFC bout. It’s not until Feb. 6 that Zack Kassian and Matthew Tkachuk will get their first chance to twist each other’s head off.
After two nights, only one of seven teams in the North Division had zero points. That was Ottawa, which had yet to play.
The first four games between Canadian teams produced 31 goals – and at least seven in each contest. McDavid had the hat trick, and Laine and Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins each scored twice on Thursday. The Maple Leafs’ William Nylander and the Canadiens’ Josh Anderson had two each on Wednesday.
Toronto trailed three times before it won with a goal by Morgan Rielly during the 3-on-3. The loss didn’t seem to annoy Anderson even a bit.
“I think anybody watching the game would say we were the better team out there,” Anderson said. “We’re not going to forget this one.”
Asked what he thought about the many future engagements between the bitter Original Six rivals, Simmonds smiled and said, “I can’t wait.”
He is enthusiastic, and missing a few teeth.
The schedule has been condensed from the usual 82 regular-season games to 56 this year. Some teams trained for barely even a week before they were pressed into action. There were no exhibition games to help shed the rust of the off-season.
That has resulted in some sloppy play – some bad shift changes and shaky goaltending and penalties that seem to be caused by exhaustion. At times, the six skaters on the ice during overtime in Toronto looked as though they were in slow motion.
“No one has ever been in this position, so nobody knows what to expect,” McDavid said.
There are a few things to look for, however: More players will be used, backup goaltenders will be more important, the shifts will likely grow shorter as the season progresses. On average, teams are playing four times a week. In one stretch, the Jets play five games in seven days.
They are a lot of back-to-back games between the same opponents, and in a few cases three in a row.
“The more competitive, more structured and hardest-working team usually has the great result,” Maurice said. “This year, because of the familiarity that will come with playing the same teams so often, being able to adjust quickly in a game could be the difference between winning or losing.”
It would be a surprise if one team ran away with the North Division. It will likely be close, with four teams advancing to the playoffs by a razor’s edge.
The Canucks put away the Oilers fairly easily on Wednesday night. Edmonton dominated the rematch on the next night. Because of a shortened season and games that are entirely being played within one division, teams are more desperate than before.
“The uniqueness of playing the same teams over and over again is that it is going to be tough to make up points,” Travis Hamonic, the Vancouver defenceman, said late Thursday night. “Everyone is playing each other, so you have to stay in the hunt.
“You are going to see the atmosphere and intensity ramp up every night.”
It’s different to see Joe Thornton in a Toronto sweater instead of a San Jose jersey, and Zdeno Chara suiting up for the Washington Capitals after all those years in Boston. It’s different playing games in empty arenas.
In Buffalo on Thursday, The Star-Spangled Banner and O Canada were both played, even without the presence of a Canadian team. Under the circumstances, that’s different. And very nice.