In tough season, Canadiens still showed little things that make teams special

With an Ottawa Senator becoming the first NHL player to test positive for COVID-19, Hockey Central Insider Elliotte Friedman joins Faizal Khamisa to discuss the latest developments.

MY APARTMENT, Montreal — I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to covering the final 11 games of this Montreal Canadiens season. Not that I was dreading it, it’s just that with the team trending toward a third consecutive playoff miss and there being too little time to make up the gap in the standings, the entertainment had already waned significantly and the storylines had somewhat been exhausted. And as that reality sunk in over the last couple weeks of action, you could feel the interest level dropping from all sides — the players were understandably playing out the string to the reporters trudging through the monotony, and the fans were becoming less and less engaged.

And then everything stopped. Abruptly. And after seven hockey-less days, and six days of self-quarantine, let’s just say my perspective on all of that has changed.

I would give anything to be covering the final 11 games of this season, to go back to things as they were before a global pandemic swept over us and filled us all with grave concern for things well beyond hockey. And not just because we all crave normalcy right now, but also because I miss it terribly. Already.

And yeah, I miss the spectacular goals, the highlight-reel saves, the speed of the game and sound of the game, and all that good stuff that entertains us. But what I really miss are the things that make me love what I do most: Getting to witness the acts of empathy that are almost constantly on display from hockey players and having the unique privilege of sharing those moments with people who may never know about them otherwise.

That’s the stuff I connect with most. I think it’s the stuff all of us connect with most.

There’s something particularly captivating about watching a superhuman do something so humane and relatable — and not out of some sense of obligation, but just because that’s who they are. Think about how it made you feel to see the Calgary Flames players donating thousands of dollars to part-time arena workers through a GoFundMe campaign before ownership decided to reverse course on its initial stance of not remunerating those people through the remainder of the regular-season schedule.

I saw the replies pour in after the Canadiens announced on Twitter that their players decided to “offer an additional financial contribution in order to offset the difference between (i) the measures announced by the Club for employees, and (ii) the compensation these employees would have otherwise received.” It’s clear the fans recognize it takes certain kinds of people to do things like that.

There are many other things of this nature that we see and hear about thanks to social media — be it Carey Price consoling Anderson Whitehead after the youngster’s mother passed away, or Tomas Tatar visiting the Dawson Boys and Girls club, or even something as simple as Ryan Poehling and Jesperi Kotkaniemi staying on the ice after practice to play with some kids who were scheduled to take the ice after them.

But there are also many little things you don’t see, but things that because of my access I see. They’re things that are much more basic, but also show to what degree these players are so empathetic toward each other.

So, I wanted to share anecdotes of that nature. Stories that are commonplace in NHL dressing rooms and not necessarily exclusive to the Canadiens, but ones that tend to get glossed over in the process of providing hockey analysis. They’re little things, but big things in the grand scheme of it all — that show what it really means to be a teammate.

I thought I’d focus on that as we all do our part to be good teammates to each other in this time of global crisis.

Let’s start here: On Dec. 4, 20-year-old goaltender Cayden Primeau made his NHL debut — thrown into the fire behind a Canadiens team that had just snapped an eight-game winless streak and was facing the league’s most offensively potent team, the Colorado Avalanche, at the Bell Centre.

You can imagine how much pressure Primeau was feeling, and it was immediately obvious when he allowed the first goal of the game at 6:13 of the first period.

On the play in question, Cale Makar rushed in on a 2-on-2 and got a weak shot off. It bounced off Primeau to Matt Calvert, who wasn’t able to get much of an attempt off. The puck then slowly made its way toward Primeau’s glove, giving the goaltender a chance to cover it and eliminate the threat.

But Primeau was slow to react and Avalanche defenceman Ryan Graves pushed the puck in. It was fair to say the goal was on him and, in a game that ended 3-2, had a considerable influence on the outcome.

But so did Primeau’s 21 saves, and I wasn’t going to focus on the goal he should’ve stopped over the ones he prevented. Especially given the context — he was put in a near-impossible position to succeed.

That said, the goal was a part of the story, and I sought out Nate Thompson to talk about it because he was the man who was covering Graves on the play and I had a feeling he might do exactly what he ended up doing when I asked him about it.

“Blame me,” he said without hesitation.

I mostly did, as you can see in my story from that night.

Again, this is such a small thing, but it offers some insight into what kind of person Thompson is.

This interview Thompson and his wife, Sydney, did with Hockey Night in Canada’s Christine Simpson offered a further window into his soul.

Here’s another scene from this season that resonated: Following a 2-0 win over the Calgary Flames on Jan. 13 — one that saw Poehling score his first goal since his NHL-debut hat trick last season and Jordan Weal score just his second goal in his last 26 games — the players went out of their way to praise Price’s leadership.

Price was an afterthought despite making 31 saves and recording the 46th shutout of his career to tie Ken Dryden for the third-most in Canadiens history. Heck, he was named the third star of the game.

Meanwhile, the Canadiens were one game removed from breaking out of their second eight-game winless streak of the season and Price had been taking most of the heat for two weeks, even though the team had failed to score more than two goals in five of the games. His body language was the subject of much radio fodder, and his leadership was under attack from angles. So I thought it was really something to hear Poehling, who was the main focus after the win over Calgary, say this: “No matter what the outcome is, Carey shows that if you just keep playing your game and stick with it, things will start going your way. He’s a quiet leader, but the way he keeps to himself and focuses on his process gives us an opportunity to dig out of situations like that.”

Here’s what Dale Weise added: “You see his attitude, he doesn’t waiver, he doesn’t point fingers, he takes the blame on himself. I think that’s huge. You guys don’t get to see a lot of his personality. I think you can see he’s opening up as the years go on here — just from my time before to now. He’s a little looser. He’s always had that comedy about him that he makes guys laugh. He keeps things loose in tense situations.

The whole world could be dumping on him outside and you would never know. He’s positive every day, he works hard and his attitude’s contagious in this locker room.”

I know those words meant something to Price. He told me they did.

The last thing I’ll share is from a conversation I had with Paul Byron after the Canadiens beat the Ottawa Senators 3-0 on Feb. 22.

I asked him about the physical pain he was forced to deal with over his three-month recovery from knee surgery, but he talked about what was really hurting him over that time.

“I wanted to help this team,” Byron said. “I felt each loss probably harder than anybody. I felt that even though I wasn’t playing well (in the lead up to getting hurt in November), the team was winning. Everything was going well, it was a matter of time (before he found his game) and going into that stretch, seeing the losses, I felt like I could have made a difference in those games. And not being able to do that, it really stung.”

He talked about how he felt for his teammates over that time and about how, even though it was out of his control, he felt he was letting them down. I thought this said a lot about who Byron is.

Here’s hoping we can get back to these interactions sooner than later. I know I’m missing them more than I realized I would.

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