31 Thoughts: Examining potential NHL fallout of COVID-19

A general view of the SAP Center prior to a 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs game between the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues. (Photo: Rocky W. Widner/NHL/Getty Images)

• What’s next for Jim Montgomery
• How could COVID-19 affect playoffs, 2020–21 cap?
• Oilers, Smith not yet talking extension

I’m in my home office at 12:11 ET last Thursday afternoon when the phone rings. The caller ID reads: Frisco, TX.

“I lost my way,” Jim Montgomery says. “I was terminated, and rightfully so.”


On Monday, Dec. 9, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly addressed reporters at the league’s Board of Governors’ meeting. Rocked by allegations against former Calgary coach Bill Peters during previous stops at Carolina and AHL Rockford, Bettman said, “We don’t like surprises.”

“Going forward,” he added, “our clubs are on notice that if they become aware of an incident of conduct involving NHL personnel on or off the ice that is clearly inappropriate, unlawful or demonstrably abusive, or that may violate the league’s policies involving NHL club personnel, we at the league office must be immediately advised.”

Barely 12 hours later, the Dallas Stars stunningly announced Montgomery was out as head coach. GM Jim Nill said the reason was “a material breach of professionalism” — not related to the abusive behaviour Bettman targeted.

“I walked in, in the morning, and (Nill said), ‘We need you to be the interim head coach,’” Rick Bowness said. “(I was) floored. Absolutely floored. Wasn’t prepared for that one bit. No one saw it coming. There was no preparation for that.”

There was one crazy rumour after another. Montgomery was silent until Jan. 3, when he released a statement revealing he had entered an inpatient residential program. Two months later, we’re on the phone.


The first question is obvious: How are you?

“Feeling great,” Montgomery says, very quickly. “I’m at peace with myself right now. I made bad mistakes, but I am not a bad person.”

He makes it clear he will not discuss the incident that cost him his job. But when I ask about the events of his dismissal, he speaks softly and slowly. You can tell he’s re-living it as he explains.

“It was surreal, like an out-of-body experience. All I could feel was incredible shame and guilt. All I was thinking was that it was going to be tough to protect my family. Making mistakes that affect them… it hurts.”

Jim’s wife, Emily, was still asleep when he returned home before 7:00 a.m.

“He told me to join him at the kitchen table,” she said when I spoke to her on Tuesday. “Right at that moment, I knew it was horrible. I tried to grasp it, but it was hard. I was extremely worried for our kids. Our oldest boys play hockey, and we knew the news would spread quick.”

Hours later, Emily said she “needed to get out of the house,” and went to her car to run some errands. There was a television remote truck near the end of their driveway.

“I told them, ‘My kids are inside — we will have friends coming home soon. Please leave.’ And they did.”

Montgomery’s relationship with alcohol had been a concern prior to recent events. In 2008, while an assistant coach at NCAA RPI, he was arrested for driving while intoxicated. Multiple sources indicated Nill confronted the coach about his drinking on a few occasions after his hiring by Dallas.

“I knew he was not relieving his stress the right way,” Emily says. But she adds that Jim was not drinking heavily while at home.

Montgomery spent three weeks at the inpatient facility (he declines to say where). He’s back home now. He and Emily see a therapist. Jim says he attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings on a daily basis. Tuesday marked 90 days sober. One foot in front of the other, one day at a time.

“It helps me do the right things,” he says. “The disease made me selfish. I was raised to be a great teammate, to hate people who are (selfish). But I was the one who was selfish. I’m a process-oriented person, and my process now is becoming a better person, father and husband.

“I am not defined by what happened. I will be defined by what I do going forward.”

Montgomery and Emily have four children — JP (10), Colin (8), Ava (5) and Olivia (2). His daily process involves getting up early, helping the boys get ready for school, taking them there, going to an AA meeting and then a workout. He’s been on the ice with both boys’ teams and is teaching Ava how to skate.

“He’s excellent with the household stuff,” Emily says. “We always used to fight over things like that. He unloads the dishwasher. My friends say, ‘Wow, he does that?’”

“It’s about making myself available to the family,” Jim said. “Just being present all the time. Emily is incredible. My family is together, and we are staying together 100 per cent. I’m very fortunate to have a great wife.”

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t angry,” Emily answers. “I was. I went through a whole mix of emotions. But that was short-lived. The fact that he went away, that he goes to the meeting every day — we’re good. Definitely, this is a sad situation for our family to go through. What my husband has done, he’s proved the last few months that we will come out of this stronger. He’s done everything in his power to change and change for the better.”

“I know that he’d never want to do this to me or the kids. Our oldest is 10; we say to each other, ‘Maybe it’s better it happened now, rather than in 10 years when he’s 20.’ It’s over with. We’re making it positive. I’m Catholic — he isn’t. He always used to say he belongs to the ‘Church of Hockey.’ I’d get (our children) baptized, he’d go along with it. I don’t think he’s religious now, but he has a sense of a higher purpose.”

Emily doesn’t do much social media other than Facebook, but stayed away just in case. She is very thankful to the parents on JP and Colin’s teams.

“They told their kids, ‘If we lost our job, how would you feel if it was all over the news?’ They’ve been so supportive. The hard thing was that Colin’s team skates in Frisco (at the Dallas Stars’ practice facility). But Jim went and he dealt with it.”

Montgomery carries a notebook with him. He writes down notes from AA meetings, from conversations with Emily. And, he scribbles plays he’d like to use someday. Yes, Jim Montgomery would like to coach again.

“It’s in his blood,” Emily says. “I see it when he’s on the ice.”

Are you okay with that?

“I’d love him a little more if I saw him a little less,” she laughs. “He needs to do it, and he’s good at it. I believe in my husband. I know he’s going to be better.”

“What happened is on me,” Jim says. “Vulnerability is actually a positive that allows trust and love to progress and grow. Growth occurs from it. I am living my life with a lot of gratitude.

“It’s like recovering from a car accident. I’m ready to get back behind the wheel.”

31 THOUGHTS

1. I feel for those who were to compete in the women’s world championships, or the Austrian, German, Norwegian, Polish or Slovakian League playoffs. It sucks. That’s what you play for. “S—ty feeling,” one coach texted. “All the work the players put in. What a shame. I feel terrible for them.”

2. Switzerland will make its league decision on Friday, and that will be closely watched because it is hosting the men’s world championships. The IIHF already cancelled its March calendar and will soon make a determination on April’s. Worlds are scheduled for May 8–24. Already there are concerns about NHLers’ willingness to attend. This event is hugely important for the IIHF because it’s the organization’s biggest moneymaker. A cancellation would be painful, especially for those who depend on developmental funding.

3. Please excuse me if anything I write about COVID-19 is outdated by the time you read this — things change so quickly. The NHL, NBA, MLB and MLS (who announced their new dressing room policies at the same time) are taking similar cues. Leagues are not cancelling games unless instructed to do so. Santa Clara County — home of the San Jose Sharks — went from recommending that large public events be canceled to banning any event with more than 1,000 attendees for at least three weeks. We’re looking at a minimum of three San Jose games without fans, unless a neutral site is the answer.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine recommended Tuesday that indoor sporting events be “spectator-free, effective immediately,” but Columbus announced it still plans to host Pittsburgh and Nashville on Thursday/Saturday, respectively. Mission Local — an online publication in San Francisco — reported the Golden State Warriors were asked not to play at home against the Clippers on Tuesday night. The request was denied.

“I have expressed my desire that they do this voluntarily before, in the days ahead, we do it as an emergency public health order,” city supervisor Aaron Peskin said. “It’s not a matter of ‘if.’ It’s a matter of ‘when.’”

We know now that leagues need that decree to cancel.

4. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sam Carchidi quoted a Wells Fargo Center spokesman saying refunds or ticket exchanges for the Flyers’ game against Boston Tuesday would be done on a case-by-case basis. (Not too many were scared off, as 19,689 attended the Bruins’ 2-0 win.) Columbus intends to communicate a similar message to fans. I’m curious to see if more teams adopt this, assuming fans aren’t outright told to stay away.

5. The fact fan/media/staff exposure to players is being cut while 20,000 fans are being allowed into (some) arenas says one thing to me: that the NHL (and other leagues) realize that if a player needs to be quarantined, games are endangered. How many people would have to be isolated? Teammates? Staff? Opponents? Just the most recent opponents, or those going back several games? You can play without fans, although it is not what anyone wants. You can’t play without players. It’s why I understand this as a temporary measure.

6. There was a lot of skepticism about the cap estimate provided last week at the NHL’s GM meetings. We may never get to know how legit those $84–88 million figures were if the virus takes its toll on the league’s economics. Players being paid as usual while games are either cancelled or held without fans is going to hurt their escrow the more revenues drop. There’s still so much we can’t predict, but a couple of agents were wondering if withholding even more from the remaining paychecks might be prudent — although no one’s going to want to be the one who suggests that.

If this gets really bad, will the NHL and NHLPA negotiate next season’s salary cap the way they did out of the last lockout? Since 2012–13 was only a 48-game season, 2013–14 was set at $64.3 million, no matter what. (That was the number in the most recent 82-game year, 2011–12.) There are so many variables, so many uncontrollables. The league held a conference call with the clubs on Tuesday, and the concern is real.

7. Two other worries for teams: insurance and revenue-sharing. If you’re not familiar with SXSW (pronounced “South by Southwest”), it is a huge film and music festival that takes place every March in Austin, Texas. This year’s version, originally slated for March 13–22, was unfortunately cancelled. Its co-founder and Managing Director, Roland Swenson, told the Austin Chronicle that their insurance policy did not cover viruses or pandemics. Not all policies are like that, but you can be certain everyone is double-checking theirs.

As for revenue-sharing, that’s going to be damaged if the playoffs are affected. This will be a problem for organizations that budgeted for it.

8. The NHL cancelled its business meetings, scheduled for March 26 and 27, in Washington. It’s too bad — I know team employees really liked that event.

9. The Danish league has suspended playoffs until April 1 and changed the format. Instead of a best-of-seven quarterfinals, semifinals and Final, there will be a round robin. Each of the eight post-season qualifiers will play each other twice, home and away. It will be three points for a win, two for an overtime win and one for an overtime loss. The No. 1 team from the regular season (Aalborg) begins with four points. Second gets three, third two and fourth one. It’s not perfect, especially for those top clubs who would be favourites in three full series. But it is creative, and gives a better chance of there being playoffs at all.

10. I mention that because it’s a) interesting and b) gave me an idea. If the NHL has to postpone/shorten the regular season, do you take the 16 current playoff teams, add those who are legitimately close enough to still get in (as of Wednesday morning: Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, Islanders, Rangers, Winnipeg) and create some kind of post-season tournament/play-in?

11. Okay, let’s look at some other things. We need something uplifting, so let’s go with this: Loved DJ Smith’s decision to give Chris Tierney the penalty-shot opportunity in San Jose on Saturday night. Tierney didn’t score there, although he got one later in the shootout. That’s a coach who is on top of things. Players notice.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

12. Sounds like Columbus and entertaining rookie Elvis Merzlikins are working on a contract extension.

13. I don’t think that’s the case for Edmonton’s Mike Smith, at least not yet. There were some rumblings the Oilers and their competitive goaltender were working on a one-year deal, but that appears to be bad info at this time. There were also talks with Riley Sheahan, but the organization was also considering focusing on the season and worrying about business after.

14. Anton Slepyshev, who played 102 games for the Oilers before returning to Russia in 2018, is considering an NHL return. Edmonton has interest, but his price point may be more than what the team is willing to do. I think there’d be interest from other clubs if that happens.

15. I’m not sure who among us had the Rangers three points out of a playoff spot with 12 games to go, but they are pushing hard. That’s why it is not a surprise GM Jeff Gorton and assistant Chris Drury were given extensions. The Jim Gregory Award for GM of the year is not voted on until midway through the playoffs, but Gorton’s going to get votes.

16. Many of the NCAA free agents who get snapped up this season will need AHL time, but there’s nothing wrong with added development. One player who teams will tempt is Clarkson centre Josh Dunne. A big 21-year-old from O’Fallon, Mo., Dunne’s told teams his intention is to go back to school. But that’s not going to stop them from trying.

17. Tying up some recent signings: Patrick Khodorenko left NCAA Michigan State to sign as a free agent with the Rangers. His AAV at the NHL level is $925,000. WHL Everett’s Wyatte Wylie, taken 127th in 2018 by Philadelphia, is at $875,000. And Mikhail Abramov’s is $810,000 with Toronto. He was selected 114th last June.

18. I haven’t seen this particular player, but have heard Detroit and San Jose are among those eying 26-year-old centre Fredrik Handemark from Malmo in the Swedish league.

19. This got lost in everything else, but it should be noted that Anthony Mantha made it clear he wants to be a Red Wing.

“Hopefully, I can stay here for a long time,” he told Detroit reporters. “That’s what I want. I want to change this team around.”

He needs an extension, and thinks discussions would be “complicated” because he’s only played 43 games. Teams need good players, and a guy who gets four points against Tampa Bay certainly qualifies.

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20. AHL Toronto’s Jeremy Bracco has returned to the team. He’s been away since February 1 for “personal reasons.” Prior to that, both he and the parent club explored a trade to see if there were other opportunities. Welcome back, young man. Fresh start. All the best.

21. Goal machine Zachary Werenski scored his 20th goal in game number 60 for the Blue Jackets. This is the eighth-fewest games a defenceman has needed to reach 20 goals since 1993–94. Ahead of him on the list are Mike Green (42 games in 2008-09); Brent Burns (three times: 48 in 2016-17, 58 in 2013-14 and 59 in 2015-16); Sergei Gonchar (50 in 1998-99); Al MacInnis (51 in 1993-94) and Sheldon Souray (59 in 2006-07).

22. Not every Tampa game features multiple line brawls, but it hasn’t gone unnoticed that the Lightning are an edgier, nastier bunch. And they want you to know it.

23. Watch to see if Ottawa and the search firm that recommended Jim Little get into any litigation.

24. Prior to Jake Muzzin’s injury, Toronto allowed 32 shots per night. In the five games between his injury and Morgan Rielly’s return, the Maple Leafs allowed more than 30 only once — last Tuesday’s 5-2 loss in San Jose (38). Go figure.

25. This week’s 31 Thoughts: The Podcast guest, Anaheim goalie coach Sudarshan Maharaj (everyone calls him “Sudsie”), told a great tale about his time with Frederik Andersen. Maharaj credited Andersen’s work ethic, saying no one worked harder than the ex-Duck, current Leaf.

“Freddie will kill me for telling this story,” he said, describing a time where Andersen was sent to AHL Norfolk. “(He) didn’t really want to be there, wasn’t working very hard and left the ice early after practice…. As you can tell, I’m a pretty laid-back guy — the Caribbean in me comes out pretty good. I called him out into the hallway; I used a few words that I won’t use now and described where I thought he was at that moment, really laid into him. That night, we were having a meeting. Freddie came in and he stood beside me. At the end of the meeting, he said to me, ‘Got a haircut.’ I thought, ‘OK, yeah.’ And he said, ‘I thought I’d change my look to go with my attitude.’ And he walked away. It was a complete 180. Never had to address that point again with Freddie Andersen.”

26. Maharaj has a unique setup with Anaheim. He spends about 20 days a month with the club, the others doing other duties — such as scouting and development.

“I’ve always been a firm believer that the goalies need some time on their own. They also need to figure (out) some things on their own, too…. They don’t need somebody in their ear all the time.”

Stream over 500 NHL games blackout-free, including the Flames, Oilers, Leafs and Canucks. Plus Hockey Night in Canada, Rogers Hometown Hockey, Scotiabank Wednesday Night Hockey and more.

27. At last weekend’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin suggested moving the start of that league’s season from mid-October to mid-December. The NBA’s regular-season TV ratings are suffering, and that would move the start of the year away from heavy interference from the NFL, regular-season NCAA football and MLB playoffs. (Prior to joining the Hawks, Koonin was president of Turner Entertainment Network.) It has never gained much traction, but this suggestion has been made before for the NHL. The last time I remember it was as the 2013 lockout ended. Two of the proponents were Dallas president Jim Lites and Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford.

28. Congratulations to WHL Spokane goalie (and Kings’ prospect) Lukas Parik, the first goalie in league history to score a goal and record a shutout in the same game. The Chiefs beat Kamloops 3-0.

29. Great year for the Geekie family of Strathclair, Man. Morgan Geekie, 21, has three goals and an assist in his first two NHL games. Morgan’s younger brother, Conor, 15, was the second-overall pick in the 2019 WHL Bantam draft. As Larry David would say: “Pretty, pretty, pretty good.”

30. In case you missed it, Chris Johnston reported the Draft Lottery will take place on the second night of the NHL playoffs — April 9 — at the NHL Network studios.

31. My son and I were out and about on Sunday when I ran into a gentleman named Dryden Lewis. He’s a big hockey fan and we got to talking. His mother, Cecilia, came to Toronto in 1969 from St. Lucia. She chose Toronto over Montreal because she would have known more people there, although, having never been to Canada she didn’t know what to expect. Her first winter she couldn’t believe she came to this cold place. Back in those days, there wasn’t much choice in television shows, so she became a hockey fan and the Maple Leafs were her team.

The fun part of the story is Cecilia didn’t know that when an announcer was saying a person’s last name that it wasn’t his first name. One of her first favourite players was Dave Keon, and she liked the name Keon for a boy if she had one. Then, in the 1971 playoffs, Ken Dryden came out of nowhere to lead Montreal to an upset of the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins. Her son was born in February 1972.

“The first words out of my mom’s mouth after I was born were, ‘Oh, Dryden,’” he wrote in an email. The doctor wrote it down and the name stuck.

Dryden has met Ken, and has all of the latter’s books — all autographed. He owns four Ken Dryden jerseys, three with the regular number 29, one with the number 40 — a gift from when he turned that age. Cecilia passed away on March 1, 2019, but her son wrote, “I’m very proud to be associated with such a legend.” Thought it was a nice story to share.

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