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Fischler Report: Challenges Are Nothing New for the NHL

Throughout history, the NHL has had to deal with a little bit of everything -- wars, lockouts and such -- and the COVID-19 pandemic is nothing different.
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American Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman once opined, "War is hell!"

And if you're wondering how that fits a narrative about our favorite sport, I'll tell you:

In terms of challenges, the National Hockey League has been confronted with a hellish two years, unmatched in its long history. And it's all about Covid-19.

The pandemic and its effect on the contemporary ice scene offers a reminder that the NHL has -- over the decades -- been confronted with many crises.

In one way or another it has dealt with them with insight and fortitude despite harsh elements working against success.

The current Pandemic is unique in its own right. But there have -- in the past -- been many crises, but of another nature.

Dating back to the NHL's origin in 1917, other challenges presented threats that had to be dealt with under the leadership of original President Frank Calder.

They included a rebound from the late1917's flu epidemic which threatened the NHL from its birth. Somehow the league survived and by the mid-1920's, it achieved prosperity by welcoming American teams for the first time.

Likewise, the league survived The Great Depression although, by 1942, it had been reduced to what now is known as The Original Six -- Rangers, Red Wings, Blackhawks, Canadiens, Maple Leafs and Bruins.

That 1942 was the same year that two crises threatened the league. Its only president, Frank Calder, had died and was replaced on an interim basis by Mervyn (Red) Dutton.

The other terribly more serious NHL crisis was produced by World War II. The riddling of lineups caused by enlistments in both the Canadian and American armed forces decimated rosters.

Some influential Canadian leaders called for a suspension-for-the-duration of major league hockey and that drive almost succeeded but, in the end, fortunately, was thwarted.

Then there was the matter of replacing personnel who went off to war. Because a large number of regular players had enlisted in the armed forces, teams had to rely on minor leaguers and teenagers to fill their rosters.

The Bruins, for example, employed forward Armand (Bep) Guidolin, who was only 16 when pressed into action on November 12, 1942. Likewise goalie Harry Lumley made his NHL debut at age 17 in the 1943-44 season as an emergency replacement.with the Rangers, on loan from Detroit.

Some players held wartime day jobs which limited their ability to travel or work out in practice. As a result, the Canadiens occasionally held their practices at night.

Despite the shortcomings, puck-hungry fans turned out in droves and cheered their favorites. They wanted hockey in any form and were quite satisfied with the gallant efforts, if not the artistry, involved in pre-war NHL games.

After President Frank Calder's death in 1942, Mervyn (Red) Dutton steered the NHL through the war years as interim leader. Following the war, medalled Canadian hero, Clarence Campbell, proved to be Dutton's able successor in 1946.

The league sustained other crises as it ballooned to 32 teams but nothing, health-wise, nor as challenging has been experienced like the two-year pandemic.

PANDEMIC CHALLENGES FOR THE MEDIA

Author and longtime hockey journalist Alan Greenberg calls the current NHL pandemic era, "The New Normal." (I prefer "The New Abnormal.")

Health requirements have significantly changed game and player coverage in a dramatic way. Greenberg speaks first-hand how the necessary restrictions have affected the NHL reporters' modus operandi.

"I haven't done a one-on-one interview in two years and I miss it," Al maintains. "The use of 'Zoom' instead of scrums is helpful but far less personal.

"Teams making post-game, post practice interviews available online make life easier but it takes away the ability to seek unique insights and it restricts contacts to the team's choices."

Because of the necessary safety precautions, reporters do their post-game work in designated media rooms, not dressing rooms.

Greenberg: "I used to rely on practices or morning skates for personal interviews, but the situation is the same as games; no dressing room access; just a designated area where selected players and the coach are made available by the team."

Media types have adjusted to the new rules and, despite the changes, players have produced virtually the same insights and commentary that had been available in the room, but in a different venue.

Granted that this may not feel the same as a "casual chat" in the dressing room but, then again, these are far from casual times.

FROM THE FANS PERSPECTIVE:

The paying customers know about all the Pandemic's pitfalls and have adjusted accordingly. They know that the past two seasons have been abnormal. And because of the "New Abnormal," teams have played despite heavy, Covid-related lineup cuts.

With front-line players out with Covid, the remaining regular players have had to be supported by minor leaguers. In one game, Panthers defenseman Mackenzie Weegar -- Florida's only varsity blue-liner -- played 31:32, almost seven minutes above his average.

The Panthers' rookie defenseman Chase Priske, in his second NHL game, played 25.29. But, as reporter Greenberg points out, Priske was an exceptional "feel-good story." After all, Chase was a South Florida native.

"He played before his family and friends" says Greenberg. "Cole Schwindt got into his first NHL game and Matt Kiersted scored his first NHL goal. With the player shortages, these events were common. A lot of rookie laps this season!"

One of the best Covid-related lines came from the mouth of Cats interim head coach Andrew Brunette. He had seven regulars on Covid protocol and held a workout sprinkled with fresh faces.

"It was kind of like running my niece or nephews minor hockey practice!"

Brunette joked.

For 32 teams, this has been a season of trying times but, to their credit, the stick handlers have displayed patience, fortitude and ability to adjust to The New Abnormal.

Ditto for the media.

WHO SAID THIS? "I didn't have a bonus for goals, so why not set up the guys who needed them?" (Answer below.)

THE FALL PREDICTIONS AND THE THREE-MONTH REALITY

The Hockey News Annual conducted a fascinating fan poll last September in which potential 2022 award "winners" were listed. I figure that three months later it's now time to see whether the fans' "winners" still hold up.

1. ART ROSS TROPHY: Connor McDavid: He looked good then and he looks good now.

2. VEZINA TROPHY: Ditto for Andre Vasilevskiy. He's still tops between the pipes.

3. HART TROPHY: The fans liked McDavid, and that's not a bad choice. But not good enough based on his December floperoo. I prefer a sleeper-leader, Adam Fox who's been the best Ranger and should be its captain.

4. CALDER TROPHY: Fan favorite Cole Caufield faded faster than ice cream in the Sahara. Trevor Zegras is my guy. (Anaheim's, too -- with or without "The Michigan.")

5. NORRIS TROPHY: Cale Makar is what the fans picked and, well, why not? (Strange, but Adam Fox was buried in fourth place.)

6. ROCKET RICHARD: We all agree on Auston Matthews with a strong sentimental runner-up, Alex Ovechkin.

7. STANLEY CUP AND PRESIDENTS' TROPHY: Both to Colorado and, right now, no argument there either.

THE PASSING OF BOB MCCAMMON

There were few more captivating characters among the NHL coaching ranks than Bob McCammon. His recent passing is a stunner to those of us who came to appreciate Bob as a hockey mind as well as a hockey humorist.

When I think of Bob it's not only for his stimulating work behind the bench -- be it Vancouver or Philadelphia -- but rather for his sense of humor.

As a matter of fact, McCammon was so funny that several of his best cracks fill Glenn Liebman's excellent book, Hockey Shorts -- 1,001 Of The Game's Funniest One-Liners. Here's a hat trick of them:

1. TOUGH TIMES IN VANCOUVER: "It's our chemistry. We're going to have lab tests to see if we can find something."

2. THE TOUGH SUTTER BROTHERS: "Put all six Sutters together and they don't weigh 200 pounds. They just play like they think they do."

3. ON A RUMORED SHAKEUP OF THE CANUCKS: "When you're 20th in the NHL out of 21, you don't have any untouchables. The only untouchable is the owner."

ANSWER TO WHO SAID THIS: Canadiens Hall of Fame defenseman Doug Harvey, who was often accused of not shooting enough.

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