EDMONTON — It was unclear where this was all headed when the NHL first embarked on its zany adventure four days ago.
Yes, head office could be comforted by one thought: It couldn’t possibly be as bad as baseball. But the potential for disaster was still great. Among other things, there was a distinct possibility that the restart could contribute to a public health crisis in areas that had fought the coronavirus to a standstill.
The return of hockey, by comparison, didn’t seem worth that risk and while it wasn’t a consensus public opinion, the feelings of many could be expressed thusly.
That was four days ago. Here’s what’s happened since:
• Connor McDavid, the game’s best player, scored three goals in Monday night’s Oilers’ victory over the Chicago Blackhawks, including a jaw-dropper that makes the short list of the most spectacular goals ever. The series is now tied 1-1. Nineteen goals have been scored in the two games.
• The Winnipeg Jets and the Calgary Flames have engaged in a three-game blood feud with the Flames taking a 2-1 series lead Tuesday. Thus far, that series has produced critical injuries to Jets’ stars Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine, a pointed accusation levelled by Jets head coach Paul Maurice at Flames star Matthew Tkachuk, a fight between Jets captain Blake Wheeler and Tkachuk, and a winning goal from the Jets’ Nik Ehlers in Game 2, his first after 22 playoff tilts with the Jets.
It goes without saying that Tkachuk scored a key goal for the Flames on Tuesday.
• A hat-trick performance by Hurricanes breakout star Andrei Svechnikov in their series against the Rangers.
• Four series are tied at one game each with the Canucks and the Wild to be heard from late Tuesday. Those series include Pittsburgh and Montreal, which features a showdown between Sidney Crosby and Carey Price, and, somehow, Toronto and Columbus has almost become an afterthought, which is really hard to do for any series involving the Maple Leafs.
• All this has taken place against the backdrop of a social-justice movement spearheaded by a new generation of players that was long overdue in the game.
• And one other thing. There hasn’t been one positive COVID-19 result among the 7,000 tests conducted by the NHL since Phase 4 was instituted 10 days ago.
It’s hard, of course, to know what all this means, particularly when the viability of the 2020-21 season remains a huge question mark. But in the here-and-now, the NHL has delivered on virtually every imaginable level with its restart, and a couple that have been unimaginable. The stars have starred. Storylines and drama abound. The hockey has been compelling. And we’re still only four days in.
When it began, the restart seemed more like the dog that can sing. It’s not that the NHL could do it well, which was the story. It’s that they could do it at all.
Now, the league hasn’t only filled a gaping void in the sports landscape, it’s generated a legitimate buzz. In August. Without fans in the building. With limited availability between the players and the media.
It’s amazing, really, and that’s for what it says about the NHL and what it says about the other North American leagues trying to restart. Major League Baseball (MLB), of course, has been a catastrophe. In no particular order there have been 29 positive virus tests in a week, a wide-scale outbreak with the Marlins, and multiple positives with the Phillies and the Cardinals. With teams travelling in-and-out of hot spots and lax protocols, I don’t know how anyone thought this would turn out differently.
But as things stand, would anyone be surprised if they had to cancel the season?
The NFL regular season, meanwhile, is just over a month away from starting and they’re not exactly inspiring confidence with their plan. The league is insisting it will follow the same ruinous path as has MLB and travel in-and-out of hot spots. To date, 40 players have opted out of the season over concerns for their health. On Monday, the Philadelphia Eagles also announced that head coach Doug Pederson has contacted COVID-19.
The NBA, to be sure, has fared better. They’ve mimicked the NHL’s bubble model, even if the bubble is in Orlando, Fla., and, to date, its held. But there’s also a larger message here.
The NHL, which is the poor cousin of the four big leagues in North America, has upstaged its rivals and emerged has the winner in all this. It got out in front of its restart and hasn’t taken a backward step. The plan was sound and has been endorsed by health officials on both sides of the border. They rejected the easy choice of Las Vegas as one of the bubbles for Edmonton, of all places, because it represented a much safer option.
OK, the games were the X-factor in this equation but, over the last decade or so, the first round of the playoffs has emerged as the league’s marquee event and the qualifying round appearing to be trading off of the elements that make the first round so great.
The players are fresh. The games are fast. The battles are ferocious.
It’s all made for a great show and here’s the best part: It’s come at a time when hockey and its fans needed it most.