As we finally say goodbye to 2020, we’ll stop one last time to reflect on how COVID-19 has impacted the NHL. Of course, the NHL portion of the impact of the disease is so much more trivial than the devastation of that we’ve seen on a global level. The deaths, the separation of families, the exhaustion of health care systems, the rise of conspiracy loons and anti-maskers, and the financial impact that has also taken a toll on so many households. In short, the hockey part seems incredibly small, but in the hockey world, COVID was still a dominant storyline that needs to be discussed.
The Initial Shutdown
Like so many things with the NHL, the league was hesitant to shutdown first. Jurisdictions like San Jose were already forbidding games in front of audiences, and it wasn’t until the NBA committed to shutting down that the NHL realized it was time to follow suit. Given that by the end of that weekend, the entire world and all non-essential businesses followed suit, it wasn’t a particularly brave decision, and from the beginning, the NHL began to sell a bill of goods about the NHL’s return.
Amazingly enough, the NHL’s reason for optimism was justified, and while I personally thought there was no one the return would happen, I was delighted to be proven wrong, even if it was in an incredibly limited capacity for the Leafs.
The Slow Return to Play
The process of the return to play was somewhat remarkable, as many people began shifting their focus towards what looked like an imminent offseason featuring a revised free agency, and draft, the NHL held true to their word and began recalling players. At least players for 24 of the 31 teams. The decision to leave the bottom seven lottery team out in the cold might make for some interesting performances from some very cold players.
If we are considering how this will affect the Leafs, it will be particularly interesting to see how a cold, 41 year old Joe Thornton will do in the NHL this season, although his time playing in Switzerland will likely make up for the extended hiatus.
The return to play was filled with rumours of what the return would look like. Would every team return? Would they play out a portion of the regular season? Will it be an expanded playoffs? What about the players who become free agents? What about signing bonuses? There wasn’t any shortage of questions, and shockingly the NHL answered them, in the form of a new Collective Agreement. A collective agreement that actually seemed to serve to minimize hockey stoppages rather than increase them.
The CBA was a pleasant biproduct of the COVID stoppage, but one that didn’t do GMs or players any favours as the cap became even more restrictive in the short term.
Steve Simmons and private health information
Back in June, we were treated to a “POSTMEDIA EXCLUSIVE” and that exclusive was the private health information of a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, sharing that they in fact had COVID-19. So before there was a return to play and before anything could be shared from the team or the Leafs about a player being infected, questionably attained information was publicly shared at a time when it had no impact on the player’s hockey career.
Understandably there was swift backlash against Simmons, as this was unethical at best, and illegal at worst, but it raised interesting questions about where lines should be drawn in journalism, and specifically sports journalism.
Auston Matthews and the Leafs certainly made their feelings known on this issue, and again, if COVID-19 has led to Steve Simmons having reduced access to the Leafs and producing fewer columns on them, there are small wins during this pandemic.
When the return to play finally happened, to delight of Edmonton and to the *shrug* of Toronto, the two cities were chosen to host the Return to Play and NHL Playoffs. Edmonton, in hilarious fashion threw government money the league to make it happen, included a stolen promotional video highlighting the Rocky Mountains in their bid, and ultimately trapped players in a semi-air conditioned hotel and gave them a prison style yard with a solitary tree for landscape.
Toronto seemed marginally more tolerable, but some of the same challenges of the bubble existed.
While being in the bubble, away from family, cut off from society wasn’t easy on the players, and difficult from a logistics standpoint, the NHL amazing pulled off the Hubs, the testing, and games without a single COVID case.
Things like Tuukka Rask having to depart the bubble mid series to be with his family were reminders that it wasn’t easy, but again, it went better than anyone could have ever expected.
Unfortunately and somewhat ironically for both the Leafs and the Oilers, the host cities were some of the first victims of the play-in series, and while Toronto finally saw playoff games, the Leafs weren’t in them.
Playing against ‘Lumbus
I don’t know what we can really say about this series that we should be trying to actively forget. I’m not sure you can make a case for running into a hot goaltender when you faced two of them and chased them from the net on the good nights. You can make the case that the Leafs played a very one dimensional hockey game. Their attack was predictable and they were incapable of countering the Blue Jackets forecheck.
Injuries certainly continued to hold Toronto back, but there was also varying levels of effort from the key players. If there is a silver lining here, Auston Matthews wasn’t one of them and showed he is ready to carry this team.
Free Agency and the Entry Draft
To say these events had a different look and feel to them is another understatement. The virtual draft managed to produce the same anticlimactic feel that the build up to most drafts produces. The hilarity of requiring a second lottery to determine who the first overall pick was fun until it ended up being the Rangers, and until we saw how close the Leafs ball was to heading up the tube.
The Leafs appeared to draft very well, and followed a strategy of drafting players who were going to have leagues to play in during the 2020-21 season. The fact that four of the players selected are now currently on World Juniors teams is a strong sign the draft was a good one.
Free Agency made for some interesting bargains and players having to settle for league minimum and select the city they wanted to play in at that price. Fortunately for Toronto, the market seems to be very appealing, and players like Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds, Aaron Dell, and Zach Bogosian all took heavy discounts to play in Toronto. Throw in the high profile signing of TJ Brodie, and the Leafs did pretty well in the COVID free agency.
Toss in the trades of Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen to manage the cap, and the Leafs will be a very different, but very fun team this season.
The last couple of months have served as a reminder that COVID is far from over. We’ve once again had to deal with the uncertainty of when hockey would return while far more serious impacts of the disease occurred on a daily basis.
We’ve seen the NHL’s reluctance to revisit the bubbles from the summer hockey rounds, and with the Canadian/U.S. border still closed we’ve seen the birth of the all Canadian division, something that fans will fall in love with but we know deep down will not be a favourite of NHL free agents.
We’ve seen NHL owners, while households around the continent struggle to get by, have the nerve to come back to the players looking for them to give up more money than they already committed to in the Collective Agreement.
Oh, and the NHL looked into buying vaccines. So there’s that too.
The pandemic and it’s impacts remain far from over. The lack of bubbles and the potential for fans to return in some markets will give this round of the return to play a far greater likelihood of cancelled games, and player illness. The NHL has seen what MLB, the NFL, and NBA have done before them, so the NHL can do what it does best and copy what has worked. It’s just a matter of if the league has the resources for that.
While COVID will continue to be an important story in 2021, here’s hoping that by the time we’re writing our 2021 wrap-ups, we’ll be done discussing the pandemic.