Putting On A Show: For the first time since March 7, 2020, there will be fans on hand in Boston’s TD Garden tonight, some 2,300 of them, as the Bruins take on the New York Islanders. Herewith, some views from the beforetimes, collected on February 12, 2020, when I saw the Bruins beat the visiting Montreal Canadiens by a score of 4-1 on the strength of a David Pastrnak hattrick.
It was just a regular night on the NHL’s late-season calendar, that Wednesday, March 11, a year ago, with five games on the schedule and a yield of regular outcomes: the Ottawa Senators lost, Connor McDavid scored a goal. But that, of course, was all for the league’s 2019-20 regular season as well, um, life as we knew it in North America. Maybe you recall: the next day was when COVID-19 stopped everything, other than the fear, uncertainty, suffering, and death. The year we’ve had since? Well, you know. As Nick Paumgarten, staff writer at The New Yorker, where he sometimes bends his paragraphs to hockey themes, notes in this week’s magazine, “If you were lucky, you were merely bored.” Herewith, a couple of Toronto front pages from a year ago, including (above) the Star’s only-in-Canada end-of-February virus-complimenting front page.
Wear a mask.
To better, brighter days, and anniversaries, ahead.
Trending Twitterwise this morning (with a little help from his friends), Ken Dryden’s reminder, here below, to (keep on remembering to make sure you) wear a mask — even if it’s over your other, famous mask. Above, showing how not to do it, Dryden pauses at practice at the Montreal Forum in the early 1970s.
(Top image: Antoine Desilets, Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec)
A month into the NHL’s second COVID-modified season: how’s that going? As of last night, 175 games of 210 scheduled games had been played, 35 postponed. Around the league, 108 players on 26 teams have spent time on the COVID protocol list, not all of whom have tested positive, with 52 players from 10 teams now cloistered, along with a couple of linesmen. Calgary, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and St. Louis are the teams that have, so far, avoided listing any players.
Time to be erring on the side of shutting it all down? Not according to the NHL. At least, there’s been no public suggestion of any hiatus in the interest of all-around health and safety. Must the show go on? Maybe not, but it will.
And maybe, soon, with more fans. The Florida Panthers, Arizona Coyotes, and Dallas Stars have already been skating in front of diminished crowds, and now there’s word that both the Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning are hoping to be getting the public-health approval that will allow them to welcome a limited number of fans into their respective buildings, maybe in March.
All of which would seem to suggest that the time is right for a detour back through hockey history to a time when fans not only filled the seats of NHL arenas, but fulfilled their right to hurl whatever they might have in hand, or pocket, or on foot, onto the ice.
The throwing of stuff by fans at hockey games is, of course, as much of the history of the sport as the ice and/or referees that stuff has so often targeted. In a book I wrote about the culture of hockey (and vice-versa), I devoted six pages to the instinct fans have to throw stuff at hockey games; the variety of stuff thrown; and the dangers inherent in that stuff being on the ice — I could easily have filled a chapter of 20 pages.
Welcome, then, to a weekend’s series of posts focussing on Chicago’s old Stadium in the 1930s and ’40s.
Chicago is by no means the only NHL city with a history of dangerous debris: the annals of stuff flung include them all, every franchise, every rink. Black Hawks’ fans were notorious, especially those occupying the high gallery seats at the Madhouse on Madison, for inundating the ice in outrage, protest, joy, or … just because they could. The 1944 Stanley Cup Finals stand out in this regard — more about that here — but there were plenty of instances before that of games delayed by coins and shoes and playing cards raining down from on high, paper airplanes, novels, fruit, empty bottles.
The Blackhawks did their best to curtail the bombarding over the years, deploying ushers and policeman, issuing threats and pleas. The entreaty reproduced here, above, dates to January of 1935, when Chicago was defending the Stanley Cup they’d won in the spring of ’34.
The Associated Press reported on this flyer, which was distributed to fans that winter. “So bold have the customers at the Chicago Stadium been getting that it was decided to appeal to their better natures in an effort to halt the aerial onslaughts.”
Fans had been growing bolder, the AP noted, since earlier in the season when a bottle-tosser, arrested by police, had been released at the request of Stadium authorities.
“Officials of the club were inclined to believe their printed appeal was conducive to better behaviour,” the AP noted, “because there was a noticeable depreciation in the amount of debris scattered on the ice the first night it was tried.”
Sad news this hour, via Hockey Night in Canada‘s Chris Johnston, that hockey pioneer Fred Sasakamoose has died in hospital in Saskatchewan at the age of 86. His son Neil Sasakamoose shared the news this afternoon on Facebook, here.
I saw the snow, and let me say this: it was grimy stuff, no romance in it whatever, just stray leaves and cigarette butts, where it was dumped there behind the big warehouse-looking building as if in disgrace.
Still, for a while there last week, I thought maybe the snow was the lede I needed for the feature I was working on, about the ways in which Canadians are finding a way back to the ice in these pandemical times we’re in, something about the snow behind the arena indicating that the Zamboni was at work again after several months of coronavirus interruption and with that, I don’t know, how better to announce the advent of the new season, not winter, hockey.
I couldn’t work it, though, that lede. I tried, but it wouldn’t work. The feature is on the page today in The New York Times (and onscreen here), with no snow in the opening at all. The rink that the snow came from, the ugly snow I saw and tried to make work, the George Bell Arena in west-end Toronto, didn’t end up in the piece, either. Nor did, I should say, several the people who were good enough to talk to me about getting back to ice, including Amanda Fenech and Dave Bidini. Thank you to them, and sorry.
The George Bell sits by a park, amid meatpacking plants, near railway lines, in the city’s Stockyard District. It’s run by a board of management, though it’s owned by the City of Toronto, which built it in 1961. It has a certain 60-year-old cinderblock charm to it, I guess, from the parking lot. Indoors — well, I’ve never skated there myself, but when I looked in last week, it looked like home.
It replaced another rink, Ravina Gardens, located just to the south, that the City demolished in ’61. I was going to work that into the feature, too, as a point of historical interest for a New York audience: Ravina Gardens is where the fledgling NHL Rangers, still then under Conn Smythe’s command, held their first training camp in 1926. (I couldn’t work that in, either.)
Amanda Fenech is a Zamboni operator and certified ice technician at the George Bell. She told me about everything shutting down at the arena back in March and how for the first time in years they took the ice out for the summer.
When they opened up again in September, it was (of course) with Covid precautions in place, no spectators, limits on how long players could spend in the dressing rooms, constant sanitizing. On the ice, there were restrictions on how many kids could be out there, and what they were allowed to do, mostly it was instruction, skills only, no scrimmages or games allowed, though they did get some of those in, for a while, back in September, before Toronto’s infection numbers started to rise again.
“It truly is a very tough time right now,” Fenech told me. “I really feel for the coaches, for the parents, and I feel 100 per cent for the kids.”
I asked her about the ice: how’s the ice? “I think the ice is wonderful,” she said. The thing is, with minor hockey locked down, with rentals fewer and farther between, the ice just isn’t being used as much as it normally would be, and so for Fenech and the rest of the crew at the George Bell, there’s just not so much call to be doing their jobs.
“A lot of rentals, they don’t want floods, they don’t need them. And so when you do get out there, instead of a ten-minute flood, you can do a 20-minute flood. You can be out there shaving, cutting, more than what you usually do, working on your low spots.” She laughed, though not with a whole lot of joy. “It’s a horrible situation.”
Dave Bidini plays at the George Bell, and I talked to him about that. Do I have to introduce Bidini? Rheostatic, Bindinibandero, founder and editor-in-chief of the West End Phoenix, if you haven’t read his hockey-minded books, including Tropic of Hockey, The Best Game You Can Name, and Keon And Me, what (may I ask) are you thinking?
If you have read The Best Game You Can Name, you know the Morningstars, Bidini’s rec team. Maybe you didn’t know this: 27 years they’ve been playing together. When the pandemic shut it all down in the spring, the team found a way to keep convening — with lawnchairs, in the parking lot of a brewery not far from the George Bell.
And this fall? “Nobody really wanted to give it up, if the league was going to happen,” Bidini said. The closer it came to having to make a decision, the uneasier it got. “Half the team was in, half the team was absolutely not.” In the end, provincial restrictions made the call for them — as it did for everybody in Toronto.
Bidini has been finding games through this fraught fall, here and there, as protocols and prohibitions allow. “Yeah, as soon as you get on the ice, as soon as the puck drops, the world does fall away,” he said.
He plays net some of the time, in some of the games. That has its own rewards — but then it always did, too. “Honestly, you’re kind of in a bubble anyway. It’s funny — goaltending is kind of an anti-social position anyway. Nobody really gets that close to you.”
Sixty-five days after the NHL isolated 24 teams in Canada to see whether it could finish its 2019-20 season, the league’s numbers were impressive: 130 games played, 33,394 COVID-19 tests administered, 0 positive results, 1 Stanley Cup awarded.
The Tampa Bay Lightning were pleased to accept the latter a week ago, on September 28, from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. With Cup in hand, the Lightning were quick to burst the NHL’s bubble, arriving in Tampa the next day, and quickly arranging to share their championship and the storied Cup with Lightning fans at a September 30 boat parade (the first in Stanley Cup history) and a (sort of socially distanced) stadium rally. For the New York Times, I wrote about the revelry, and where it might lead from here: it’s online here, and in the paper later this week.
“I’d like to have a dollar for every time the Stanley Cup has been filled with champagne.”
When Frank Calder, the NHL’s first president, said that in 1942, hockey’s most cherished trophy had already been won more than 80 times in its 48 years of history, going back to 1893, when the Montreal Hockey Club laid original claim on the Cup. Calder was in a storytelling frame of mind rather than a profiteering one, regaling reporters with tales of Cup shenanigans, some of them involving Lord Stanley’s chalice being misplaced, or maltreated, some of which may even be true. Calder wasn’t at the time harbouring a reliable quaff-count; his point was presumptive, recognizing that however hallowed a symbol it may be, the Stanley Cup will never escape its original self and purpose as a drinking vessel.
All of which gets us around to the question of the night: can you truly be said to have won the Stanley Cup if you don’t end up merrily slurping sparkling alcohol from its silvery bowl?
Seventy-seven times the Cup, in several incarnations, has been awarded since Calder spoke his piece in 1942. With a lock-out having washed out the 2005 season and Final, the Tampa Bay Lightning made it 78 last when they dispensed with the Dallas Stars in Edmonton to win these perturbed playoffs and receive the Cup from Calder-heir Gary Bettman, putting an end, finally, to the 2019-20 NHL season.
And, yes, champagne (and beer) was decanted into the Cup and duly poured out, into and onto the happy faces of the new champions. Was there ever any doubt that they would partake, despite what public health officials might advise in, say, a surging pandemic such as we’re in?
No-one needs reminding how unlikely the whole idea of completing the hockey season seemed back in March and April when COVID-19 interrupted everything. Even when the NHL looked north for a bubbled restart at the beginning of August there was no guarantee that the summer’s emergency experiment would work out.
The NHL deserves credit for the fact that it has. Prudent planning, strict procedures, stringent testing, good luck: they’ve all played a part in getting the league to this point. When, back in August, I talked to some NHL high-ups for a New York Times feature I was working on, they were assuming nothing.
“I’m just hopeful we get to that point,” Dr. Winne Meeuwisse, theNHL’s chief medical officer told me when I raised a question about possible protocols involved in the eventual presentation of/sipping from the Cup. “We’re a long way away from that, and we have a lot of work to do to get there.”
Everybody I spoke with emphasized that health and safety were — and would remain — the top priority.
I asked Dr. Meeuwisse specifically about infectious disease and risk and all the potential for Cup handling, passing around, kissing, and, yes, drinking from.
“Would hoisting the Cup be a problem? No. Would a lot of shared consumption be a problem? It probably would be.”
I asked the NHL’s deputy commissioner, too, Bill Daly.
“That’s a fair question,” he said. Without offering specifics, he suggested that it just might be something that the league would indeed regulate … maybe. The full quote: “For better or for worse, we’re roughly six or seven weeks away from having to deal with that. I think we have some time to figure that out. Quite frankly, I think that’s been a recurring theme in terms of our approach to the pandemic from the start, which is we want to remain nimble. We want to react, or be in a position to proact, where you can, but when as we learn more and new things become evident or apparent to us, we can and have you know proven to this point where we can we can adjust on the fly.”
I talked to Phil Pritchard, too, the Hockey Hall of Fame vice-president and curator who’s better known as the Keeper of Cup. “As we get closer,” he said, “we’ll see what rules and regulations we have to put into effect.”
I get it. Who, exactly, was going to tell Steven Stamkos, or Pat Maroon, that after 65 days sequestered in their Canadian bubbles, far from friends and family and fans, they weren’t allowed to touch their lips to the Cup in all the traditional ways?
Dr. Meeuwisse well understood the challenge. “At that point,” he told me a month ago, “is a player going to care enough about it to alter their behaviour?”
Dr. Andrew Morris was someone else I consulted in August. He wasn’t professionally involved in the NHL’s return to the ice, but he’s a fan and, as an infectious diseases specialist at Toronto’s Sinai Health and University Health Network, an interested observer.
Would the champions bow to best preventive practices and forgo the clutching of the Cup, the kissing, the swigging, maybe just wave to it across the distance in the dressing room?
“I think they’ll say, ‘We’ll live with the risk here,’” Dr. Morris. And that’s true for this disease in general: there are public health issues, and then there are people’s own personal risk assessment issues.”
After a month of summertime hockey, we’ve learned what NHL playoffs look like when you play them in a pandemic: on the ice, they more or less resemble the game as it’s usually played, back in the pre-COVID past, with all the ensuing clustering, close-fought commotion, and bodily byproducts that players shed, the sweat, spit, blood, and teeth. If all goes according to script in a year in which so much hasn’t, in another month from now the Stanley Cup will be in the hands of hockey’s latest champions, riding high, and full of champagne. In today’s print edition of The New York Times — and online, here — I survey hockey’s daily tutorial — its crash course? — on how not to social distance.
Like everybody, Gary Bettman was housebound at the end of May. Unlike the rest of us, the NHL commissioner was broadcasting live from his New Jersey home, announcing the plan his league would be following in the hope of rebooting a 2019-20 season that the global pandemic had so brusquely interrupted in mid-March.
It was another strange scene in this strange and scary year we’re in, and at the same time as familiar as yesterday’s Zoom call. The image was medium-res at best, and Bettman was looking slightly startled, though smartly turned out in his quarantine-formal blue jacket and open-necked white shirt. He was in his dining room, with a formal-looking high-backed chair sitting empty behind him, maybe to signify the absences we’ve all been enduring. Over his left shoulder the camera caught the corner of a painting rendered in greens that don’t naturally occur in hockey. The room itself was a hue that, if I’m reading my Sherwin-Williams colour chart correctly, sells as Decisive Yellow. Cacophonous and yet somehow consoling was the background percussion accompanying Bettman as he said his scripted piece: nearby, in the commissioner’s kitchen, his three-year-old grandson was happily hammering pots and pans.
“I want to make clear that the health and safety of our players, coaches, essential support staff and our communities are paramount,” Bettman said at one point in a 15-minute explanation of the NHL’s Return to Play Plan that laid out formats, match-ups, and a tentative calendar. While there were blanks yet to be filled in — just where games would be played still hadn’t been determined, for instance — on the well-being front, the commissioner was adamant. “While nothing is without risk, ensuring health and safety has been central to all of our planning so far and will remain so.”
In a 2020 context, it was the right thing to say. In a COVID-19 context, there was no not saying it.
There’s another context that applies here, too, a broader hockey framework in which proclamations of how seriously the NHL takes the health and safety of its players are rendered ridiculous even as they’re spoken by the fact that the league still — still! — insists that fighting is a fundamental part of the game.
Tweakings of rules have, in recent years, contributed to a reduction in fights. Coaching attitudes and strategies have shifted as the game has sped up, and intimidation no longer plays the part it did even five years ago.
The reasons why the NHL prefers this fading-away over an outright embargo on fighting remain opaque. Fans still love it, it’s always said, some of them, and cheer when the gloves drop. Bettman takes cover, when he’s cornered, by insisting that the players think it’s fine.
Otherwise, the league hasn’t bothered to renovate its rationale since Clarence Campbell was president almost 50 years ago. Fighting is a safety valve by which players release the pressure that builds up in such a bumptious game as hockey, he used to argue: without it players would be maiming one another with their sticks. That’s one of Gary Bettman’s go-to defences, too, though it’s a thermostat he likes to talk about.
Advances in medical science continue to reveal links between head trauma and the grim tolls of CTE, but that news hasn’t impressed the NHL, which wants more proofs before it decides that the safety of its players might be improved by not having them punch one another in the head.
The contradiction the league embraces when it comes to fighting remains baked into the rulebook. Which part of Rule 21 doesn’t apply to fist fights on the ice? “A match penalty,” it reads, “shall be imposed on any player who deliberately attempts to injure an opponent in any manner.”
Earlier this month, The New York Times imagined how major sports might have seized the opportunity of our global lull to re-imagine the way they go about their business. What about dispensing with baseball’s DH, the Times blue-skyed. Or, for the NBA, introducing a 4-pointer for really long-range shooters? And for hockey:
Though that was never going to happen.
Returning to the ice after a four-and-a-half months hiatus is no easy enterprise. You can understand why a league like the NHL, trying to get back to its business in extraordinary times, would seek to keep things as normal as possible, as familiar, as unchanged.
The times, though — they’re different. COVID-19 has sickened millions worldwide. Tens of thousands have died. Mid-pandemic, the movement against racial injustice and police brutality that grew after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis under the knee of a policeman was such that it’s even shaken the NHL out of the complacency it’s preferred to shelter in for so long. (Granted, the response has been a little stilted, a little clumsy, but the fact that the league is getting around taking a stand on issues of systemic racism, equality, and social justice is, I suppose, a something in itself.)
As the NHL lurches back into action — the verb there is Michael Farber’s, from a TSN essay this week, and I think it’s the right one — as hockey goes lurching into its unprecedented and unpredictable future, we’ve learned all about the safety measures the league has put into place for the 24 teams hubbed away in a pair of Canadian bubbles, Toronto and Edmonton, from testing players every day for COVID-19 right down to counselling them to wash their hands frequently while singing “Happy Birthday.”
The league’s playbook on all this is available to any and all who might like to browse it, in two documents, neither one of which is exactly a riveting read. The 65-point Return To Play FAQ is the more accessible of the two; the Phased Return To Sport Protocol: Phase 4 Secure Zone is 28 pages of deeper detail, covering everything from the in-bubble roles of Hygiene Officers and what happens if a player or official tests positive for COVID-19 to Hotel Amenities and Dining Options.
It’s all very thorough, as it should be. But what about on the ice? How is that going to be affected, if at all? Looking in on European soccer over the past few weeks and even some Test cricket, I’ve been interested to see how pandemical conditions and precautions have changed the way games are actually being played.
Not a whole lot, as it turns out. Most of the adjustments have been of a peripheral sort.
Cricketers were told not to apply sweat or saliva to the ball.
The handsome guide issued by England’s Premier League, which resumed play in June, included these provisos:
Closer to home, North American Major League Soccer offered a short plan for “In-Match Prevention,” outlining “general hygiene measures [extending] to the field for official matches.”
Players, coaches and officials were asked, for instance, “to exercise care when spitting or clearing their nose;” they were also “asked not to exchange jerseys or kiss the ball.”
Health and safety guidance governing the NBA’s bubbly restart in Florida was contained in a 113-page guide disseminated among teams, though not, as far as I can tell, released in any public way. It does, USA Today reported, mandate that players to “Avoid Gross Habits on the Court,” namely:
No spitting or clearing nose on the court; wiping the ball with jersey; licking hands (and touching other items such as shoes or the basketball); playing with or unnecessarily touching mouthguard (and touching other items.)
Baseball, benighted as its efforts to get back to bats and balls have proved, issued a detailed guide in its 101-page 2020 Operations Manual, which includes a section on the rules MLB has modified for its pandemic return-to-play as well as guidelines for best behaviours on-field. Those include wherein “players all other on-field personnel” are exhorted to “make every effort to avoid touching their face with their hands (including to give signs), wiping away sweat with their hands, licking their fingers, whistling with their fingers, etc.”
Not allowed: any spitting, “including but not limited to, saliva, sunflower seeds or peanut shells, or tobacco.” (Chewing gum is okay.)
Also, says MLB:
Fighting and instigating fights are strictly prohibited. Players must not make physical contact with others for any reason unless it occurs in normal and permissible game action. Violations of these rules will result in severe discipline consistent with past precedent, which discipline shall not be reduced or prorated based on the length of the season.
Compare that to what the NHL is offering. As far as I can tell, the NHL’s guidance for what players should and shouldn’t be doing on the ice in the time of COVID-19 is limited to a single bullet-point on page 10 of the aforementioned Protocol, down at the bottom of the section headed “Safety Precautions.” It reads, in its entirety:
Avoid handshakes, high fives, and fist bumps.
So no more handshake lines, I guess, to finish off hard-fought playoff series? What about kissing the Stanley Cup, when it’s finally presented? On that and other matters the NHL seems to be keeping its own counsel. Maybe more advisories are to come. For now, not another word does the league have to say on how players might be advised to conduct themselves on the ice in a time of a highly contagious novel coronavirus.
Teams, I’ll assume, have their own careful systems to make sure water bottles aren’t shared; maybe they’re in charge, too, of reminding players not to be blowing noses or spitting. It may be that, like the NBA, the NHL — or maybe the NHLPA? — has issued comprehensive handbooks to teams to cover this whole tricky territory, they just haven’t been made public.
I guess it’s possible, too, that the league has been talking to players on an individual basis — putting in a call, maybe, to remind Boston’s Brad Marchand, for instance, not to be licking anyone for the next few months at least.
What seems just as likely is that it was decided at some point that short of rewriting the way game is played, there’s no way to govern or even guideline hockey into a safer, socially distanced way of doing things, so why even bother drawing attention to the awkward truth?
There’s nothing social about the game once it gets going on the ice, and no distancing. Players stand shoulder-to-shoulder at face-offs, they jostle, they bump. Once the puck drops, the game is a festival of mingling and milling, of sweaty human pushing and crowding and collision. That’s the game.
And the punching that sometimes ensues? Maybe you could direct players to disperse after whistles blow, to stand back a bit at face-offs. But if you did that, how could you not say something about the closer contact of bodychecking and fighting? While baseball might have no problem with explicitly forbidding melees, the NHL feels safer in silence, maybe, which is why it defaults to pretending that none of this is worth discussing.
The fighting that hockey has failed to inhibit didn’t make sense a year ago, long before COVID had capitalized its threat, and it doesn’t make sense now. But it’s not going anywhere: it’s firmly ensconced inside the NHL’s bubble for as long as this outlandish season lasts.
Even if you missed the exhibition games earlier this week and the several scuffles that happened there, if you tuned in this afternoon to the real thing, you didn’t have to wait long to see the new NHL meld with the old in Toronto.
When Carolina’s Jacob Slavin scored an early goal on Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, once he’d gathered with his linemates for a hug, he headed, as you do, to the Hurricanes’ bench to bump fists.
There was more of that a few minutes later, under angrier circumstances, as Carolina’s Justin Williams felt the need to drop his PPE to punch New York’s Ryan Strome in the head, and vice-versa.
Strome was bleeding from the nose by the time they’d finished. He headed for the Rangers’ dressing room, while Williams sat himself down in the penalty box. A couple of bemasked members of Scotiabank Arena’s rink crew skated out with shovels to scrape away the blood from the ice.
Game on, I guess.