I can’t speak for everyone, but the only thing keeping my isolation days even remotely structured is meal time. Honestly if weren’t for breakfast, lunch and dinner it could be literally any hour of the day to me. It could be November, I don’t know. At any given time I’m covered in a three-and-a-half-year-old’s chalk, Play-Doh and someone’s blood (mine?), trying to convince my very pregnant wife not to murder the cat. And my veins run thick with strong coffee.
Reaching meal times is like hitting video game checkpoints, where you can no longer take from me what I accomplished before. I made it to dinner, dammit, and I ain’t going back to before.
So, I figured it’d be fitting to use meal time – a fancy dinner actually, which is a social construct I barely remember – for the structure of my weekly SN column (at least out of the gate).
We’ll start with a tasty little hockey thought for an appy, followed by something a little meatier (or portobello mushroom caps for Jeff Marek), with a lighter dessert.
Without further ado, I’ll be your host, server and chef today and in the weeks to come, so yeah: bon appétit.
Appetizer: The NHL should pull its season back on the annual calendar
A reality of life is that it’s hard to step off the ol’ hamster wheel, take some time to reassess, then resume again in an entirely new and improved way. It’s not impossible, but it’s hard. We fall into routines that wear grooves into the paths of life, and as those get deeper, it gets harder for us to turn from the familiar. Grooves become ruts.
Sometimes it takes jarring life events for people to change how they operate, unfortunate though that may be. Sometimes it takes a health scare to change a diet.
Well, the NHL is in the midst of a jarring life event, with the wagon wheels of another season launched free from their usual ruts. But this also gives the league an opportunity it hasn’t had in the modern era. This is a chance to reimagine the best of what the league could be within the world sporting landscape, and to enact real change to get there.
What needs to change? The slot the NHL season takes up on the calendar. This current season and its potential endpoints aside, the NHL season generally pushes far too deep into summer for the liking of just about everyone.
Last season the St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup on June 12. Given the majority of NHL cities are located in colder climates, we’re talking about one of the three or four months where it’s really nice and hot — proper summer — and where it sure as heck isn’t hockey season. At that time, you’re also going head-to-head with the NBA finals, which means the NHL never truly has the sporting spotlight to itself for the culmination of its season.
On the other end, September is “back to reality” month for most of North American culture. The kids go back to school and while it’s a beautiful month we’re clearly coming out of summer and into fall. Baseball is coming to its conclusion and the NFL kicks off, which really means “sports are back.” (And to be clear, I don’t see the NFL and NHL in competition for many eyeballs when their seasons overlap.) September nights would just feel right for the official start of the NHL’s regular season.
This isn’t some drastic change I’m proposing – really the whole season just needs to be pulled back about three weeks, moving puck drop to early- or mid-September (around the 10th or so) and ending in mid-to-late May. With training camps starting a couple weeks prior to the season, we’d be looking at teams getting going within a handful of days of Sept. 1.
In most years it would be hard to drop a shortened summer on players, particularly those who’ve played into June, but this isn’t most years. A big part of what we’re talking about here hinges on the worst-case scenario (at least financially) of the league not being able to resume the 2019-20 season in any fashion. This is the doomsday scenario, but also not an unrealistic outcome at this point.
An earlier start to the 2020-21 season would offer at least a tiny bit of consolation for fans who’ve had their seasons cut short by a month or more. It would allow players to fully let go of 2019-20 and focus on their families in a time where their families deserve to have their sole focus. It would avoid a scenario where you rush players back into situations that still feel riskier than they will in late summer/early fall, when we hopefully have the worst of all this in check.
And with that, you’d get the season to where I believe it best fits amidst the world’s sporting calendar.
Dinner: Hockey’s lessons, our capacity to handle challenges, and isolation
I actually thought it was a joke. The full-ice Herb Brooks-style down and back “again” bag skate wasn’t enough? We needed a twist?
My junior coach at the time, Mike Vandekamp, was notorious for pushing his players to get the most out of them – in particular when it came to conditioning – but seeing our assistant coach Bob Dever pull the far net off the moorings while I gasped for air with my stick behind my neck … it didn’t seem real.
In time, I became familiar with the way ‘Vandy’ operated. Where other teams bag-skated blue line and back, then red line, then far blue, then far end and back, reversing the order on the way home, we did more. “Far end” became “around the net to that blue line and back around the net. Then around the net again to that centre red and back, and… well you get the idea. This bagger took twice as long. Turning carves ruts in the ice, and we turned around that net so often it had to be moved every few minutes so we didn’t work our way down to the cement below.
It wasn’t just about cardio with Vandy, it was about the mindset that came with it. We stopped at least a foot past every line, too, because where other teams only went to the lines (or stopped before) for conditioning drills, we were going to be those extra inches better in the game’s most pivotal moments. I learned to skate when I didn’t think I had more to give.
I had never played for anyone who pushed me so much. By being pushed, though, I discovered a fitness level I didn’t think I had and with that came a confidence to mentally push through when my body felt tired. It turns out the reserve tank actually moves the machine for a long time even when it seems to be on empty. Knowing I could push myself this way brought mental clarity when I was physically exhausted. I’m grateful for having learned that the fight was in the brain, not the legs.
I don’t think I’m special. Most people can handle a lot more than they think, but may not learn that until pushed. There are people – endurance artists, extreme performers like David Blaine, for example – who’ve basically leaned into the fact that the body can take a lot if the mind just allows it.
I’ve since seen the lessons learned about my personal capacity play out off the ice, though the pain of pushing through there has been inarguably harder than any physical obstacle I had previously encountered. I’ve gone through tough periods where I’ve seen doctors for anxiety issues. I’ve stressed about untold issues as I navigated my post-hockey-career life, the roots of which are buried in the bedrock of uncertainty. I’ve fought demons that have drained productive years from my life and threatened the relationships most important to me, and through them all, I’ve learned more about my own capacity to persevere.
Still, the uncertainty of what we can actually handle haunts a lot of us.
Today, whether inside the sports world or not, we are all in the midst of a pile of unknowable questions and it’s awful. Being asked to live in isolation and sit at home with the world stopped around us is brutal. It’s a test unlike any of us are used to facing.
To bring it back to sports, and hockey, this all can feel a little like playing the neutral zone trap. Standing (or sitting) around feels unnatural and unproductive, but as some New Jersey Devils teams of yore could tell you, sometimes doing less is actually worth a whole heck of a lot more when it’s part of a greater plan.
Hockey doesn’t wont for stories of people facing big asks and learning to carry on – you just need to scroll back through the list of Bill Masterton Memorial Award winners to find a few. Robin Lehner succeeds despite struggling with alcoholism and bi-polar disorder. Brian Boyle was diagnosed with myeloid leukemia, then returned to play. Dominic Moore missed a year and a half of hockey to care for his dying wife, and he summoned the courage to return. Sports are littered with examples of men and women pushing through unimaginable personal circumstances to thrive.
And while those players faced their challenges with action, our current situations are more analogous to a tough bag skate from a hard-nosed coach. I believe we’re about to find out that we — the collective We — have a bigger capacity to push on than many previously believed, and that the fight is between the ears.
In a few weeks the weather will get nicer, we’ll be plenty sick of this lifestyle, and it’ll be tempting to give it up to alleviate that pain. We’ll want to stop grinding through for fear of what’ll happen if we don’t. We’re going to want to see more immediate results from our sacrifices than we might be seeing. And we’re going to want to bring hockey back, perhaps even before it should really come back.
It’s at those moments when we think we’ve hit our limits that I believe it’s important to acknowledge and trust there’s more within us than we think. We can stick to this all the way through. We can finish this job. We can persevere.
There are lessons from sports we can use during these tough times, and for once, we’re all on the same team. We can do this. Let’s do our part and pull together, by pulling apart for as long as necessary.
Dessert: Was Kasperi Kapanen on the verge of finally adding an option B to his breakaway portfolio?
Towards the end of my second season as video coach for the Toronto Marlies, I put together a package for our coaching staff of Kasperi Kapanen’s breakaways over the previous two seasons. Not really for coaching purposes, but more just to say “Hey, look at how absolutely identical every one of these breakaway moves is… isn’t that crazy?” I’ve never seen a guy lean so heavy on one single move. Three seasons into his NHL career, little has changed.
If you’re a Leafs fan, you know exactly what I’m talking about. He stickhandles in tight, more in front of his body than a standard shooting position. Then he goes from his backhand to his forehand and it’s off his stick towards the top right corner in a blink. As a general rule over the many Kappy attempts I’ve seen: if he hits his spot, he scores. The problem is, hitting any spot like that, at the speed he’s usually moving, is super hard. The slight majority of his attempts end in bobbled shots or firing it clean over the glass. The least common outcome to date has been clean goalie saves.
I’d bet, if you averaged all his attempts out, he’s no better or worse than the league average player on goals-per-breakaway. But he just gets so many breakaways you’ve got to wonder if there isn’t some better, or at least alternative, option for him.
Towards the end(?) of this season, we saw him finally mix it up (as seen at the end of these clips above). Maybe we were on the precipice of seeing Kapanen find a curveball to complement his heater.
As it currently stands, I’m not sure if it’s smart or not to have an all-or-nothing outcome for your sole move, but it sure is noteworthy, and something to keep an eye out for the next time – whenever that may be – you find yourself watching a Leafs game.