Could we call the experience “normal”? Probably not. Probably never again. Social distancing was still in effect. Interviewers and interviewees were masked. But the NHL’s annual Player Media Tour, which made a stop at Toronto’s Hotel X Monday, offered a taste of the pre-COVID-19 hockey life. The event kicked off what will be, for the first time since 2018-19, a traditional NHL calendar. Development camps will bleed into training camps, followed by a pre-season and regular-season games in October. We’ll get an 82-game schedule; an NHL All-Star Game in Vegas this coming winter; even a break for an Olympic tournament featuring NHLers for the first time since 2014; and the NHL will award the Stanley Cup in June for the first time since 2019.
For the most part, the players, the majority of which are double vaccinated, seem ready and willing to accept the return of something resembling “normal.” Perhaps no team is more excited for that prospect than the Vancouver Canucks, who endured a devastating COVID-19 outbreak in 2020-21 that affected almost every team member and kept them out of game action between March 24 and April 18. Theoretically, nothing they experience this coming season will be as trying as last season. “We had our six-day break right before (the outbreak), too, so it wasn’t just the quarantine,” said Vancouver Canucks goaltender Thatcher Demko. “We really hadn’t been on the ice in three weeks. They gave us two days to get our wind, and guys were feeling it. It was tough to get through the schedule, and we bonded over it. Guys matured through that experience. It’s tough to do. “
Little about the past two seasons has felt traditional thanks to the pandemic. The 2019-20 season brought a four-month shutdown followed by a 24-team bubble playoff tournament. The 2020-21 season spanned just 56 regular-season games, commenced in January and forced teams to play only within their realigned divisions. If the glass was half full: the condensed schedule and divisional play brought something novel, at least at first. Montreal Canadiens center Nick Suzuki, for instance, enjoyed the MLB-style series in which teams would spend several days in each city and play opponents multiple times in a row. “I think the baseball style was pretty cool,” he said. “Getting to spend a week in Vancouver, settling down in your hotel room, and you don’t really have to fly that much. So if that was brought back, I don’t think guys would hate it.”
The simplicity of being forced to stay together on such a regimented schedule had its advantages, too. “With the group of guys we had, we were having so much fun,” said Canadiens right winger Tyler Toffoli. “Not that we were just so relaxed and didn’t care. It was like – we know what to do every single day. We show up to the rink to practice, we do our work and we have fun. We hang out.”
For the most part, however, the cons seriously outweighed the pros. The baseball series format fostered rivalries, for instance, but also brought repetition. New Vancouver Canucks center Jason Dickinson lamented the fact his former team, the Dallas Stars, played the same opponents seemingly over and over, and Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse felt similarly. “It brought a little bit of intensity, those mini series, but I won’t miss last year’s schedule,” Nurse said. "It’ll be nice to get back into our division and play 82.”
The experience last season felt particularly hollow for players from the Canadian teams, though. On top of lacking the freedom to enjoy each city and enduring a gruelling schedule with few extended breaks, the players pined for full buildings. Toffoli said he felt horribly for Montreal’s fans. While the Canadian arenas aren’t guaranteed to start the 2021-22 campaign at anything close to capacity, the seven Canadian teams are obviously expected to play in front of more fans than they did last season. Because the Habs reached the Stanley Cup final in 2021, they were able to top out at 3,500 in the Bell Centre, but it wasn’t the same. “Some of those games, I’d be going out, and (Brendan Gallagher) would be like, ‘If this was a normal season, our dressing room would be literally shaking right now, and it would be so loud that you could open the doors and everything would be extremely loud, and you’d be shaking and you’d be nervous.’ ” Toffoli said. “And it’s just like, damn, I kind of want that feeling. We got a little bit of a taste, especially we played Tampa, and it was really loud, but it would’ve been twice as loud because of the amount of fans that would’ve been in there.”
For Ottawa Senators left winger Tim Stutzle, now an NHL sophomore, the only NHL experience to date has been the empty-barn experience. He’s yearning to take in the traditional atmosphere, not just for the roar when he has a good game, but to spur him on when he’s not at his best. “It’s just not the same playing without them,” Stutzle said. “And if you have a bad game, you really have a bad game and just feel like s---, – it’s just terrible without the fans. I couldn’t be more excited.”
Even with fans returning, not every building league wide will start the season at full capacity. The delta variant of COVID-19 could also spike cases to the point arenas have to temporarily close their doors to spectators again, and, without the league’s entire player population vaccinated, there’s still a risk of outbreaks within teams. We thus can’t predict a completely normal season. That said, 2021-22 should offer the closest thing to one in several years, and the players are cherishing it. The fans missed them – but the players missed the fans just as much.