TORONTO — Jason Spezza doesn’t hesitate to call Roger Federer one of the best athletes of all time.
So although the 32-year-old tennis god was outmatched on Rexall’s Stadium Court, it was only because the game was ball hockey and his competitors and teammates in the Rogers Cup exhibition included NHL stars current (Spezza, Phil Kessel, Mark Scheifele, Cody Hodgson) and past (Steve Thomas, Brad May, Nick Kypreos).
We spoke with a few of the players and jotted a few notes from the lighthearted shinny game that pit ATP and NHL players on the same court.
1. Federer’s face was swooshed with a giant grin as he jogged up and down the court. He said he loved seeing the NHLers come out to support a tennis tournament, and his words, as usual, felt genuine.
“I’ve always been a big hockey fan,” he said. “I’ve always collected NHL jerseys, so it was great playing today.”
2. You could not have written this script. Team Red forward Federer, who only played the first of two exhibition periods, beat the white team’s goaltender with a full-wind-up slapshot with one second left in the frame:
3. Federer is lucky the game was waged in tennis shoes: “I can’t skate at all, actually. Well, a little bit. But I can’t stop, so I have to skate in circles,” he said after his buzzer beater. “I used to play a little bit of unihockey [a.k.a. floorball] in Europe. It’s like plastic sticks, plastic balls with holes inside. It’s much lighter. That’s what I did for warm-ups for tennis back in the day.”
4. Under the Swiss star’s red hockey sweater was a T-shirt that read simply “BETTERER.”
5. New Dallas Stars centre Jason Spezza wouldn’t commit one name to be the heir to his captaincy in Ottawa, but rather threw out a few veteran leaders in the Senators room: Chris Phillips, Chris Neil and Milan Michalek. “Erik Karlsson is a young player that’s learning a lot and becoming more of leader,” Spezza said.
6. Love that Phil Kessel took the game’s opening draw against Federer. Not only were the court’s two greatest talents staring eye-to-eye, but fans also got to see sport’s most eloquent and accommodating interview facing off against, well, Phil Kessel. Amazing:
7. Winnipeg Jets centre Mark Scheifele sprained the MCL in his right knee, ending his NHL campaign in early March. He assured me that his knee was 100 per cent healthy and ready to go.
“I have got injured that much—knock on wood. It was a tough feeling, but I’m happy it wasn’t as serious as it could’ve been,” he said. “It’s totally back to normal. I don’t have to worry about it at all.”
8. Scheifele says the Jets’ loss of Olli Jokinen, who signed with the Nashville Predators as a free agent in July, is very significant.
“Having is veteran presence in the dressing room is huge, and he can play in all situations for us as well. It’s definitely a huge loss,” says Scheifele. “But [Mathieu] Perreault is a huge pickup. We have the guys in the minor systems that can come in and make a big impact.”
9. Schiefele’s response to critics who question whether the Jets have a true No. 1 goaltender in Ondrej Pavelec is pretty clear: “He’s an unbelievable goaltender. Shooting on him at practice every day, you really see what kind of goalie he is. He’s a stud back there. I know all the guys are confident playing in front of him. It takes a team effort for a No. 1 goalie; every one of us needs to be playing well defensively in front of him.”
10. Once the world’s No. 2 but now down to a No. 10 ranking on the ATP, Andy Murray had a few offers to play doubles this week at the Rogers Cup but turned them down, he said, because he failed to qualify for a first-round bye. (Murray didn’t play hockey.)
11. Of the tennis pros, Peter Polansky—who hails from North York, Ont.—easily looked the most comfortable with a hockey stick in his hands.
12. Jack Sock replaced Federer at intermission as the most well-known tennis player in the hockey game. Sock won Wimbledon doubles with his partner, Vernon, B.C.’s Vasek Pospisil.
“I thought I was part Canadian, but apparently not,” Sock said. “I can’t put the puck in the net.”
13. Cody Hodgson on Gary Roberts, with whom he’s working out for the fifth summer: “He’s intense.” Hodgson arrives at training every morning at 7 or 8 a.m., and Roberts shows up always an hour before the first crew of hockey players, “getting a sweat on.”
14. Hodgson loves the Sabres’ off-season moves, particularly the reacquisition of sniper Matt Moulson: “We’re excited. He brings an offensive identity to our team,” Hodgson said. Buffalo finished the season dead last in goals scored by a mile, with 157. The next most anemic offence belonged to Florida, with 196 goals. “With hockey, you never know if a guy’s going to come back. Everyone’s connected, so there’s never a sure thing.”
15. Very cool. Once of the most important things, Hodgson says, that coach Ted Nolan tries to impress upon his players is that NHLers live fortune lives: “Don’t take it for granted.”
16. Federer on Genie Bouchard: “She has a great attitude on the court, in my opinion. Doesn’t fist-pump every point — which I can’t stand. She’s normal. I’m happy she’s been successful. I hope she can keep it up and win the big ones.”
17. Towards the end of the shinny game, they made the goaltenders play with considerably oversized racquets because it’s hilarious:
18. Fame looks scary. Federer was bombarded constantly with requests for photos and autographs and glances in well-meaning folks’ general direction. One lady screamed at the tennis player to throw her his used, empty bottle of Fiji water.
19. Federer said this about the constant press demands Sunday: “I’m in a place where I feel less is more because people already know a lot about me. I think the stage is for other players to make a name for themselves, do more media, do more promo.”
20. Brad May still has difficulty converting one-timers. (Kidding, Mayday. Don’t hurt me.)