Quick Shifts: Should Canada host both NHL playoff hubs?

The NHL has confirmed 11 players have tested positive for COVID-19. How does that impact the return to play plan and what steps need to be taken before we may see summer hockey? David Amber discusses with Elliotte Friedman and Chris Johnston.

A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. You can feel safe reading with the knowledge that Kim Pegula recently gave a vote of confidence to this week’s blog.

1. Four weeks ago, I was buying rounds of optimism for everyone within six feet. I was riding high off sunshine and The Last Dance finale and news that the National Hockey League and its players had agreed on a tournament format — albeit only a format — to return to action.

I dreamed of August days on the golf course chased by playoff double-headers at night. Maybe it wasn’t true progress quite yet, but it was a foothold. Sports was on the comeback. “Maybe we’re delusional,” I wrote.

Well, Friday kinda felt something like the opposite. Sports is on the setback.

Florida, man.

The fun-loving Lightning — a team literally able to Jetski to practice — were forced to shut down shop. The Blue Jays and Phillies too.

“23 Clemson football players test positive for coronavirus” reads the most recent CNN headline as I type away at my 15th weekly hockey blog since hockey.

Maybe we are delusional, to hope bubbles with mani-pedis and DJs can remain immune — or immune enough — to take care of business and deliver us our nighttime entertainment and annual champions.

For hockey fans, it stings a little different when a name gets matched to a positive test report, doesn’t it? More human. More real.

So, when the NHL announced in an email Friday night that 11 of the 200-plus (roughly five per cent) Phase 2 players tested positive, it affirmed that the show will go on — but for how long?

Would followers of the various teams be even more impacted if those 11 players were named and we could put faces to the cases?

(I’m not at all suggesting this health info should be made public, but when the games start for real, it will be virtually impossible to avoid.)

What Friday’s downer reminded is that this pitch to make 2020 a summer of sports is still very much a big, fat gamble.

The payoff could be wonderful, I still believe. Maybe this scare will tighten precautions further.

Good days, bad days. You know the feeling. It’s been exacerbated since March.

We’re all riding this roller coaster at full rip. The tricky thing is some are building the track, while others are dismantling it.

2. Las Vegas has long been considered a frontrunner to be one of the hub cities, but when comparing the virus spread in the U.S. to that of Canada, surely the league must now consider two Canadian locales as hubs.

This is a numbers game, and the stats simply favour Edmonton or Vancouver when it comes to spread.

Prior to Friday’s COVID-dominated sports news, I asked Morgan Rielly what else was important when picking a hub city (restaurants? hotels? weather? golf?), if we all agree that safety is No. 1.

“I think if you asked guys to go play in just about anywhere, they’ll probably agree eventually. But I think it’s important that we take care of what’s important first, and that would be player safety, and also the general public,” Rielly said.

“We have to do what’s best on that front before we get carried away. And then after that it’ll just be about what’s available, and I think wherever we go, we will be well taken care of.”

If health and safety is truly first priority, the U.S. is increasingly becoming a harder sell in the court of public opinion.

I know the preference was one hub in each country, but it may be time to double down on the North.

3. Ten questions in relation to the Buffalo Sabres, who are not in a rebuild according to the Pegulas:

• If you were offered your “dream job” but had to turn around and fire 20 or so employees in a pandemic, would you take it?

• The very day the NHL chopped its regular season short, Buffalo was to play in Montreal. Had the Sabres won that game in regulation, they would’ve finished with a better points percentage than the Canadiens and been included in the 24-team return to play. How different would so many lives be today?

• Botterill saw Rasmus Ristolainen as a “core player.” Does Kevyn Adams?

• How will Adams handle two very compelling — and very different — RFA negotiations with Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson?

• If ever a team was screaming for the buffer of a hockey ops president, it’s this one, no?

• What is the patience here for Casey Mittelstadt, 21, or Dylan Cozens, 19, to develop into a second-line NHL centre?

• Who’s in net?

• Botterill was fired 10 days before Phase 1 of the NHL’s draft lottery. They only have a 6.5-per-cent chance of winning Alexis Lafreniere, but we’re saying there’s a chance. How intriguing does the Adams era get if they win?

• You know Cody Hodgson is still on the payroll until 2023, right?

• What will Jack Eichel’s fed-up rating be one year from now?

(Fun fact: Eichel’s first of two lump-sum $7.5-million signing bonuses is due July 1. That’s a big cheque to cut for an organization getting leaner, and it helps explain the timing.)

4. As you may have heard, NHL Awards ballots were due this week.

This is how Jon Cooper weighs the Hart.

“To me, it’s what did that player do for his team to lift them up? And if you can sit there and say, ‘If we didn’t have that guy, there’s no chance,’ then that would be my MVP,” Cooper said.

Would the Avalanche have a chance without Nathan MacKinnon? The Rangers without Artemi Panarin? The Oilers without both Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl? Not so easy… unless you’re David Pastrnak, who might find his name on a few ballots himself.

“It’s gonna be and it should be Leon Draisaitl,” says Pastrnak, spoiling the surprise. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, he’s playing with Connor.’ Connor was hurt there for a month or two, and he bring it a level up. So, for me, it’s absolutely no question.”

Here’s a question: If it was McDavid with 13 more points than the rest of the field and a league-leading 10 game-winning goals, would there be a debate?

5. Pastrnak checked in with reporters from Prague, where the Rocket Richard champ has been scrimmaging twice a week with a group of about 10 NHLers, as well as playing tennis and soccer.

He’s planning to fly back to the States soon and chase the Stanley Cup that he missed out on by 60 better minutes.

“I think we’re a better team than last year,” Pastrnak said.

He considers home-ice advantage sans fans.

“I don’t know what to expect. I’m expecting the unexpected,” he said.

After finishing the shortened season with 48 goals and 95 points (both career highs), Pasta was asked how bummed he was about missing out on 50 goals.

“It’s a little sad, but I was a little more mad about missing out on the 100 points, to be honest with you,” he said.

Line of the Week. Pastrnak was asked the first thing he’ll do once he arrives back in Boston.

“I dunno,” he wondered. A beat. “Get tested for COVID?”

6. Has an expansion team ever nailed its marketing like the Vegas Golden Knights?

Not only are they courting the NHL for hub-city status, but they hogged a number of the NHL Fan Choice Awards. Marc-Andre Fleury won best save for his diving stop on Nic Petan; Robin Lehner was named the best follow on social media; and Chance won best mascot. Ryan Reaves (funniest player) and T-Mobile Arena (best arena) were runners-up.

Not that these honours are all that prestigious, but they are voted on by fans — and it shows just how engaged the Knights fan base is.

Nice touch letting Reaves break news of his own contract extension by recording a video for the team’s Twitter account as well:

Just because Reaves and Evander Kane genuinely don’t care for each other on the ice doesn’t mean they can’t see the bigger picture.

“I spoke to Evander and told him I want to jump in on this powerful message,” Reaves told the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Ed Graney. “We have to put aside our differences on the ice and come together for a much bigger cause.”

Reaves has joined some calls with the Hockey Diversity Alliance and has been preaching the need for diversity and acceptance in interviews.

“You definitely have to understand what your beliefs are and where you stand. At the same time, I do kind of toe both lines because I have had great experience with cops. I’m also very aware of what’s going on around the United States.

“A lot of it stems from undertrained ignorance that every police force seems to have some – one, two, three, four cops, whatever the number is. The thing is not to let those bad apples trickle through an entire force.”

(P.S. Great to see Ryan Kesler and Zach Aston-Reese join Kane in donating to the HDA as their cause of choice for the Sportsnet Bracket Challenge.)

7. Different cities, different types of COVID tests for players.

In Toronto, Zach Hyman says Phase 2 volunteers are undergoing the nasal swab.

“The test is interesting. It seems worse than it is. They put the two swabs up your nose, like you’ve probably seen in the videos. And your eyes start to tear up a little bit, but it’s over pretty quick,” Hyman said. “If it allows me to skate, I’m all for it.”

In Las Vegas, Ryan Reaves told Tim & Sid he’s been tested thrice in the past two weeks via throat swab, the style demonstrated by Dana White below.

“It takes two seconds. It’s absolutely painless. I’ve seen a couple guys gag. They got the gag reflex going, but it’s not bad at all,” Reaves said.

“They do not do the nose one here, which is really nice. I saw people getting that, and I’m just praying I never had to do that. It just looks miserable. What if one of those things snapped off in your nose. Fish it out with what?”

According to the Nevada State Athletic Commission, it takes about six hours to get the result of a throat swab test.

8. Alex Ovechkin has been skating in Florida but is expected join the small group of Capitals — Braden Holtby, John Carlson, Evgeni Kuznetsov and Lars Eller — working out at Washington’s training facility.

Coach Todd Reirden said this week that no one on the team has said they don’t want to return or feel it’s unsafe.

For most teams, there is no question who would start in net for Game 1 in a return to action. But with Caps rookie Ilya Samsonov (16-6-2, .913) posting better numbers than Holtby (25-14-6, .897) this season, the question has at least been raised. Remember: In 2018, the year Washington won it all, Philip Grubauer started the first two games over Holtby before losing twice and getting replaced for good.

“Going into it, it’s Braden Holtby’s job to lose, and I feel confident in him. I felt confident with where things were going right before the pause in terms of how his game was coming around, and I think he’ll get the first crack at it,” Reirden said.

With Holtby a pending UFA, Samsonov may be the goalie of the future. But everyone is focused on the present.

Holtby says he has “no clue” how the economic impact of the virus will affect his next contract with a franchise TBD.

“I haven’t thought of it past the fact of when it might be. There’s so much up in the air right now, even if free agency is later on, October, November, whatever. Our first thought was: ‘What do we do with the kids in school?’ With so much uncertainty, but who knows if the schools will even be running by then?” Holtby said.

“I’m trying to do everything I can in this time, once we get back playing, to win a championship.”

9. Boston’s Don Sweeney is one of five NHL GMs on the American Hockey League’s 13-member return-to-play task force (Kyle Dubas, Ken Holland, David Poile and Steve Yzerman are the others) helmed by Dave Andrews.

“I’m very grateful to be part of a unique group under unique circumstances. We’re gonna bounce things off a wide range of general managers and several independent owners, a collection of higher-level people within the AHL, in order to gauge how that group can function best from a player development standpoint and a business operations standpoint,” Sweeney says.

The group plans to meet via Zoom periodically to discuss a return of the NHL’s largely gate-reliant farm system in accordance with the health guidelines.

As one can see by the purge in Rochester Americans’ payroll this week, the economic health of the AHL is of serious concern. So, it’s interesting to see high-profile members of the NHL ranks stepping up and getting involved.

10. David Raymond is the original Phillie Phanatic, the creator of the Mascot Hall of Fame and, most importantly, the brand wizard behind Gritty.

Raymond gave an interesting interview on the business of the sports mascot to Lead Off with Ziggy and Scotty Mac this week. A fun nugget: When “Gritty fever” blew up, rapidly escalating from Hockey Twitter star to Saturday Night Live joke target, the Flyers started tracking Gritty’s global exposure through a service.

“They received over $8 billion of free ad space because of all the media and all of the attention,” Raymond said. “From a marketing perspective, you couldn’t possibly dream that sort of thing would happen.”

Wowzers.

11. In past interviews, I’d heard Bruins president Cam Neely relay tales of how fans still gleefully shouted “Seabass!” upon recognizing him in public — a nod to his scene-stealing cameo in the 1994 goofball classic Dumb & Dumber.

But until Monday, I hadn’t heard the backstory behind the truck stop restroom scene. Seabass is to kick in a stall door, discover a frightened Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) curled up on the toilet, and look shocked.

“The camera is where the back wall would be. There’s no toilet. There’s just the door and the side walls. And Jim Carrey is sitting on a milkcrate in the corner. That’s supposed to be my point of view when I bust the door open. I was supposed to have this surprised look on my face, which I was struggling to do,” Neely recounted on Hockey Central @ Noon.

After failing to nail his reaction after “eight or 10 takes,” Neely started freaking out, worried that he was wasting precious filming time and suspecting Carrey wondered why the Farrelly brothers hired some jock instead of an actual actor. Neely pulled Carrey aside.

“Listen, Jim. I’m really sorry, man,” Neely said. “I’m struggling. Just bear with me.”

“Ah, Cam. Don’t worry about it,” Carrey replied. “I’ve had some scenes that’ve taken me 50 takes. Just relax.”

On the very next attempt, Cam kicks the door open to find Jim Carrey (out of frame) mooning me.

“So, I think they got the take,” Neely said.

With this behind-the-scenes knowledge, I re-watched the scene (below), and you can totally spot Seabass cracking a smile at Carrey’s surprise. Amazing.

12. Happy Father’s Day to all the fellow dads out there. I’ll be spending some time with mine on a golf course, which is about as good as it gets. Solo carts and all.

I’ll never forget that one time as a little kid when he rushed me to the rink for a game and we both forgot to bring my stick. (This, I’ll tell my children, was way back in the days when families ran around forever late for things and did most of their snacking in the back seat of a vehicle.)

As I rushed to pull on my Cooperalls, my dad ran to a nearby sports goods store, bought a beautiful emergency Koho and presented it to me in the dressing room.

“Thanks, Dad,” I said. “One problem: This is a left curve. You know I’m a righty, right?”

“You are?! I just assumed because I shot lefty that you did too,” he replied. “Oh, well. Just think how good your backhand will be today.”

Hug your dad. He’s trying.

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