32 Thoughts: Without Olympics, NHL/NHLPA must plan for next World Cup

Penguins forward Sidney Crosby feels fortunate to have competed in multiple Olympic Games, but says he feels for the guys that have missed numerous opportunities to fulfill their Olympic dreams, as you might just get one chance. Courtesy: PensTV.

• Would the NHL change COVID protocols after the break?
• How the cap outlook could still change with decreased capacities
• All-Star Weekend could still happen in Vegas

We’re awaiting the formal announcement, but sadly for them, the NHL players’ 2022 Olympic dream is done.

When cross-border games were postponed on Sunday, the league notified the players that triggered the “material disruption to the schedule” clause allowing the NHL to withdraw from Beijing. The NHLPA received an opportunity to make it a joint decision, which was accepted on Monday.

It’s painful for the players. Many are wondering about a one-year postponement similar to the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games, hoping for another shot next winter. The chances aren’t high, but letting go of something you really want is painful. It doesn’t matter if the restrictions on participants made it nothing like the true Olympic experience. A medal is a medal, no matter how many people are in the building to see you win it.

“Yeah, that sucks. I think everybody was looking forward to this,” Winnipeg forward — and Team USA hopeful — Kyle Connor said Tuesday. That quote could have come from 100 different players.

“I definitely feel for the guys who have missed numerous opportunities,” said two-time gold medallist Sidney Crosby. “These are experiences of a lifetime that you don’t get very many of as an athlete.”

This means eight years since the most recent best-on-best Olympic Tournament, and six years since the last World Cup of Hockey. It’s not the most immediate priority as Omicron swamps the world, but the NHL and NHLPA must find space for another World Cup, and as soon as is humanly possible.

One more time for Crosby to dress for Canada and Alexander Ovechkin for Russia, while both remain at the peak of their powers. Victor Hedman daring them to challenge him. We’ve waited long enough for a Crosby/Connor McDavid (and friends) vs. Patrick Kane/Auston Matthews (and friends) Canada vs. USA showdown. Who wants that more, the fans or the players themselves?

Bring the Swedes, the Finns, Czechs, the Slovaks and anyone else who wants to ruin North American narratives. Waiting four more years is not an option.

Well, I guess it’s an option, but a really dumb one.

Last summer, Crosby and McDavid made a point of skating together to prepare for the Olympics. Those who were there called it magic. When we consider two great players working as linemates, we generally think of one passing to the other. This went above and beyond that.

“They didn’t pass the puck to each other, they passed the puck to space,” said longtime NHL player development consultant Darryl Belfry, who was with them. “The puck is going to a space that only those two know, because of their collective genius. They’re two steps ahead, and it was glorious to watch them spring scoring chances out of nowhere.”

“They can see where the offensive chances will come from, and where others are trying to contain them. Other top players can do similar things, but not to that level. And they aren’t zipping it hard, they’re flipping it into a space…and gone. That thinking is incredible to witness…especially when you see it over and over and over again.”

Another individual who was there said it was interesting to watch McDavid — who loves to attack off the rush — learn to mesh with Crosby, the best at grinding it out down low.

“Sid was placing pucks and letting McDavid skate into them. Sid is so great at protecting the puck he could buy time and allow McDavid to be like a wide receiver running to scoring areas.”

Belfry said they’d throw the puck three or four times into space in a row, “and one of them would be walking to the net.” He explained that unless an offensive player is dealt an advantage because of space, angle or speed, one-on-one play in the NHL is won most often by the defender.

“Other players were saying, ‘You’re not only playing against those two, you’re also playing against the space,’” Belfry added. “You don’t know where the next threat is coming from. You can’t defend that, it’s crazy. Physical gifts are one thing, but the most impressive thing is thinking two or three levels ahead of everyone else and getting to the same plane.”

Among Belfry’s proteges are Kane, who he calls “a puppeteer,” and Matthews.

“But I’ve never seen two guys doing it together like that. Best-on-best, we just have to see it.”

Yes we do.

Pick a spot: Montreal, Toronto, Vegas…so we can hit the tables between games. Whatever. Make it happen. The fans want it, the media wants it, the players want it.

Get it done.

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.

32 THOUGHTS

1. A lot more in the blog about COVID, the Olympics, cancellations — all the stuff you really love to read about. But first, a nicer story. Keltie Jeri-Leon finished his 250-game WHL career last season, an adventure through Tri-City, Kamloops, Lethbridge and Seattle. “I was the lone 20-year-old for 23 days (in Seattle),” he laughed. “Everyone else was so young, we had 11 rookies.” Undrafted, Jeri-Leon signed with ECHL Maine, and received a call-up to AHL Providence when the Bruins were hit with an outbreak. He has three goals in 19 games in Maine, and one in two games for Providence. “I’m loving it. Nothing better in the world than getting paid to play the game you love.” When Boston’s Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand were added to protocol, Jeri-Leon received word he’d be going back to Providence from Maine. He played for the Mariners Dec. 15 in Trois-Rivieres, before a PCR test indicated Jeri-Leon, although asymptomatic, was positive. That ended the call-up opportunity. He was isolated in the team’s Quebec hotel while Maine played twice more before its Christmas break.

2. Jeri-Leon was supposed to go home to Kelowna for the break, but putting him on a plane was not an option. Neither was coming back on the team bus. “Everybody (on the bus) was negative and going home for the holidays,” said Maine coach Ben Guite. “It was not safe and not right.” The organization did not want Jeri-Leon stuck in the hotel. They wanted him in his apartment where he could walk around, open windows and cook his own meals. They tried to get a rental car so he could drive back to Maine, but the companies would not allow the vehicle to cross the Canada-US border. Driving to his parents was not feasible, because by the time he made it from Quebec to British Columbia, the holiday would be over. “I’d also be sleeping at rest stops, so not to infect anyone,” he said. The team looked into a car service. “The prices were astronomical., but we thought, ‘Okay, we will do whatever we have to do,’” Guite said. “None of the drivers would agree to do it. It’s Christmas, we understand.” So, 20 minutes before puck drop of the Mariners’ final game in Trois-Rivieres on Dec. 18, the coach phoned Jeri-Leon to explain the plan.

3. “I didn’t want him left there,” Guite said. “I knew if it was me, I’d lose my mind. I thought, ‘I’m the best person to do it.’” The bus departed after Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Lions. The Mariners got in during the night (it’s about a five-and-half-hour drive). Double-vaccinated, Guite owns an SUV with a third row of seats. With the assistance of the team’s training staff, he made sure to have the proper masks, goggles and shields. He bought a clear shower curtain to put behind the front row.

At 9 am, he began the drive back to Trois-Rivieres. “My biggest concern was explaining this getup to the border guards,” he laughed. Upon arrival, Jeri-Leon climbed into the last row. The windows were opened “about an inch to an inch-and-a-half, and we cranked the heat,” Guite said. They talked for a few minutes before settling to their own routines. Jeri-Leon watched Queen’s Gambit (an excellent choice), while Guite made a few calls and listened to podcasts.

Maine Mariners coach Ben Guite.

Is the coach a good driver? “Very, very good,” the winger laughed. After dropping off his player, Guite was home before midnight. Jeri-Leon said team ownership and the Professional Hockey Players’ Association (which represents AHL and ECHLers) did everything possible to help, but roadblocks arose everywhere. “I’m still quite shocked by (what Guite did), and my parents are incredibly appreciative,” Jeri-Leon said. “How good of a coach he is to us, how he treats us like he’d want his kids to be treated, I am very, very thankful. Being alone in the hotel would have been very hard.” You know you can’t talk back anymore when he says you don’t backcheck hard enough, right? “I won’t say anything back,” he laughed. An excellent gesture by Guite. Beyond the call of duty.

Keltie Jeri-Leon’s view in Ben Guite’s car on the drive home.

4. Guite had 19 goals and 45 points in 175 NHL games for Boston, Colorado and Nashville from 2005-06 to 2009-10. His lone playoff score was shorthanded in a 2-1 Avalanche win over Minnesota in 2008. “I never got to play much with Joe Sakic because he was a first-liner and I was a fourth-liner. But I tell everyone I did score two goals in three shifts with him.” Guite killed penalties with the Hall-of-Famer. “I was on the opposite side of where Minnesota tried to enter our zone. I know (Sakic). He is going to strip the puck, and I was cheating. I knew he’d see me and put it on my tape.” Minnesota’s goalie was Niklas Backstrom, and Guite laughed as he relayed the scouting report from Jeff Hackett, then coaching Colorado’s netminders. “He told us that if you fake a shot, (Backstrom) would put his glove down. I tried to go high and put it right in his glove. It trickled in anyways.” Great story.

5. I was relaying that story to someone who said that players in the NHL absolutely notice which teams take care of players who test positive on the road and which don’t. Carolina, Edmonton, St. Louis and Toronto made sure people got back, especially right before Christmas. One team apparently spent close to $250,000 to do so.

6. There were some players who asked if it would still be possible to go to the Olympics on an individual basis. That was possible if the decision was left to the players. But, because this was the NHL’s call, that option is closed.

7. A lot of players will be heartbroken by this news, but it’s hard not to think about Steven Stamkos. At least he does have an Olympic Gold, awarded by Hockey Canada for being named to the 2014 champions, although injury cost him the spot. The Lightning captain didn’t start the season atop many Team Canada lists, but charged to the forefront with 34 points in 28 games. You could see how much it meant to him, and it sure sounds like he was going to attend despite quarantine concerns.

8. Talking about where to go from here is more dangerous than walking through a field of land mines, so I’m going to stick to the facts as I know them. As many of you know by now, the NFL — with less runway to the playoffs than the NHL — changed its protocols to test vaccinated players only when symptomatic. Tuesday afternoon, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver presented his case against pausing the season. “This virus will not be eradicated, so we have to learn to live with it,” he told ESPN. He added that, like the NFL, his league is looking at shortening the amount of time anyone has to be in protocol. (The NFL’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Allen Sills, called it “trying to test smarter and in a more strategic fashion.”)

The Washington Post’s Rick Maese, who has done thorough reporting on this issue, interviewed several experts about the NFL’s move. “If Omicron is borne out to be much more transmissible but less severe, that’s a win-win for everyone. In the short term, that’s a lot of ifs,” said Asaf Bitton, associate professor of health-care policy at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “This strategy carries a risk of unintended consequences in the short term, even if it’s in the right direction long-term.”

“There’s never been strong value in testing asymptomatic vaccinated people outside of exposures,” said Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Leagues did that reflexively, and it led to a lot of diagnosed cases. I think we got to move away from that type of paradigm.” Adalja is also quoted as saying, that as breakthrough infections become more common, it’s increasingly important for sports leagues “and other parts of society to move away from one-size-fits-all measures.” All of these leagues talk to each other, they know what each is thinking. So, what are the ramifications for the NHL? Let’s unpack.

9. First, a reduction in testing. How does everyone feel about that? I do not want to create the impression I talk to enough people to paint a fully accurate picture. I have some idea, and opinions are all over the place — with extremely passionate debate in private. “I wish you could listen to these calls,” one player said. (So do I.) Nashville’s Nick Cousins and Montreal’s Jonathan Drouin publicly expressed their concerns. Cousins tweeted last Thursday he felt a pause should happen. The Predators beat Colorado and Chicago before they were shut down. Drouin admitted worry about playing Boston on Saturday night, following the Bruins’ outbreak. That game was postponed, and the temporary cross-border closure means the Canadiens aren’t scheduled to play again until next Tuesday. Both of those players have private support. Several others (and staff) indicated they don’t care so much about testing for themselves, but for their families. That’s an extra layer of protection they greatly appreciate.

10. However, there is growing opposition to frequent testing, instead searching for alternatives. When Steve Yzerman talks, people listen. “Our players are testing positive with very little symptoms, if any symptoms at all,” he said last weekend. “I don’t see it as a threat to their health at this point. So, I think you might take it a step further and question why are we even testing for guys that have no symptoms….The players ultimately want to play. None have come to us and said, ‘We should shut this down.’ If they feel that way, they haven’t expressed that to us. They’ve been very acceptive of the protocols. Whether they like them or not is irrelevant. They’ve been willing to do them. I think they just want to play and get through this.”

Again, I don’t desire to put percentages or numbers on how many feel that way, but it’s not insignificant. There are many players and teams who feel very strongly testing should be reduced, except in symptomatic cases. Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck expressed his frustration for the second time in several days, calling the pause, “a little overkill…You see leagues like the NFL, who are adapting and, I think, doing things right.” St. Louis captain Ryan O’Reilly and teammate Torey Krug publicly added to the group. There’s a major difference between the NFL, the NBA and the NHL. That is, of course, Canada.

11. To a man/woman, every source I spoke to over the last five days said they are well aware testing only symptomatic players (even if vaccinated) is a non-starter with Canada. “We’re six months away from even beginning that discussion,” one doctor said. But the NFL and NBA moving in that direction means there will be a push for the NHL to explore similar opportunities. “Let’s say Colorado plays Dallas,” one player said. “Do we need to test for that if no symptoms? Could we have a system where you only test if you are symptomatic or for a week prior to going into Canada?” This will not be an easy issue to manage.

12. One Canadian team exec’s reaction to that suggestion: “Thank you for the competitive disadvantage.”

Monitoring COVID-19 in the NHL
The coronavirus has run rampant through the league, forcing teams to deal with the threat of outbreaks and games being postponed. Here's the latest.

13. Silver said the NBA is 65 per cent boosted. The NHL and NHLPA are encouraging players to get it, but knew last summer this could be a potentially big challenge. One success story is Tampa Bay, where it was widely accepted. The Lightning embracing it might lead to more, because they’re as elite as it gets. But other teams haven’t seen widespread acceptance.

14. Next: cap. When Montreal played Philadelphia with no fans, there was a lot of grumbling. I don’t know how it could have been avoided. The Flyers were there, and the decree was right before the game. “That’s $2M of revenue we will never see again,” said one exec. There’s real worry about what cuts to Canadian gates will mean for revenue and salary-cap projections. Approximate revenue for a home game in Canada: Toronto ($3.5M), Edmonton & Montreal ($2.3M), Vancouver ($1.8M), Calgary & Winnipeg ($1.4M), Ottawa ($650,000). Don’t want to see those shrink.

15. On a similar wavelength: One rumour that didn’t come true from last weekend — that the league would “freeze” until Jan. 1 to protect the Winter Classic at all costs. Can’t afford to lose those revenues, especially now that so much infrastructure is in place. I’m looking forward to it. If you want to see how this can work on a smaller scale, the ECHL has two outdoor games next week. The Toledo Walleye host the Kalamazoo Wings on Sunday and Indy Fuel New Year’s Eve.

16. Don’t assume All-Star Weekend is an automatic COVID casualty. Deep Throat’s “Follow the Money” also applies here, and it’s Vegas — so you know the media wants to go. And I don’t think the now-available time will be completely jammed with games. The players will get time off returning to action, probably at least a week.

17. I thought Edmonton made perfect sense for a Jakob Chychrun destination, but a few sources have said it’s very unlikely to be the Oilers.

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18. Don’t know if I’ve seen a player look as relieved after scoring as Tyler Seguin did in Dallas’s 7-4 win over Minnesota on Monday. The stress is on in Dallas. Change is coming if the Stars don’t surge over the second half of the season.

19. A lot of the executive searches are going to pick up after Christmas. Montreal for sure. I think Anaheim’s put out some feelers and had a few conversations, but nothing too deep yet. Chicago spent a lot of time on its process for finding its next leadership. Now, they’re going to get moving.

20. Good luck to fellow Sportsnet panelist Jennifer Botterill, who was listed — along with Angela Ruggiero and Jayna Hefford — as a candidate for a position in Vancouver’s front office by The Globe and Mail’s Gary Mason. President and Interim GM Jim Rutherford said he’s been calling other teams about potential hires. He likes to move fast and knows what he wants. He does have permission to talk to Pittsburgh’s Patrik Allvin, and there’s been contact. Two challenges: does it matter if the COVID surge prevents in-person meetings; and will Rutherford’s presidency discourage anyone who wants real decision-making power?

21. There is definitely a lot of research being done on female candidates. Former players, especially. Two out-of-the-box names: Lindsay Artkin, President of the NHL Coaches’ Association, and Kim Weiss, who coaches Maryland in the North American Hockey League.

22. Player who has most surprised this season: Tage Thompson, Buffalo.

23. COVID is not just rough on the players. Around 10 officials were out of action. Not easy to fill those spots.

24. Couple of you asked via Twitter when NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman reduced Jason Spezza’s suspension from six games to four if he’s ever done that before. The answer is yes, twice. Raffi Torres from 25 games to 21 in 2012 (hit on Marian Hossa); and Daniel Carcillo from 10 games to six in 2014 (applying physical force to an official).

25. Second question several of you had: has a coach, like Paul Maurice, said they stepped down because he/she felt their team needed a new voice? I remember once. After the 2000 NBA Final, Larry Bird resigned as coach of the Indiana Pacers — who had just lost the championship to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games. Bird felt that players tuned out a coach after three seasons and refused to change his mind, even though the players wanted him to stay.

26. Winnipeg was very loyal to Maurice, and he may never admit it, but I think his move was a way of repaying that loyalty. He sensed they might have had to make a change. So, he took it out of their hands, making it easier on ownership and the GM.

27. Toronto signed OHL Sarnia’s Ty Voit, taken 153rd overall last summer, to an entry-level contract. The Maple Leafs continue to avoid giving bonuses in an attempt to protect cap space — telling draftees it gives them the fastest opportunity to reach the NHL. Only Timothy Liljegren has bonuses among the current entry-level crop. And I think only expansion Seattle is close to Toronto’s one such player.

28. Chicago’s Tyler Johnson joined Vegas’s Jack Eichel in undergoing Artificial Disc Replacement to resume their NHL careers. Both have a fan — and interested viewer — in Calgary. His name is Brett Anhorn, a goalie who played Midget-age in Medicine Hat, dropped it in university, then returned to play for beer-league fun later. Like many goalies, his body battled the physical demands of the position, but in 2010, when Anholt was 32, “I fell down the stairs when our dog tripped me, which caused the final rupture. I had multiple injuries to my lower back, and was told I’d never play hockey again. I couldn’t pick up my (then-two-year-old) daughter to play.” He was diagnosed with a Disc Degeneration in the L4-L5, the lowest vertebrae of the lumbar spine. “For a fusion, the waiting list was two years for even a surgical consultation. My symptoms weren’t bad enough. Even when I lost the ability to move my feet, I was told it was not severe enough for surgical intervention.”

29. Anhorn scoured the world for options — Brazil, Germany, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States. The artificial disc option came up early in his research, and in June 2011, he decided to take that route. It was an out-of-pocket expense, and Anhorn underwent surgery in the UK on July 13, 2011. “The situation with me is a little different than Eichel’s, because it’s his neck and my lower back,” he said. “My surgeon was very careful to warn that there are no guarantees in spine surgery, which definitely gave me pause and made me really think about the risks of proceeding. That was when he added, ‘but you have a very good chance of a good outcome.’ Thankfully, that’s what happened. I knock on wood every time I talk about it because I’m a superstitious goalie.”

Anhorn isn’t taking the bumps an NHLer would, but he healed and rekindled his love for the game. Work took him and his family to New York City for a time, and he backstopped the Upper Canada College alumni to consecutive Central Park Classic championships in 2017 and 2018. But the biggest victory? “Remember the first day I could hold by newborn son. I’m thankful every day I had the surgery.” Anhorn kept an interesting online diary of his experience. You can find it at backup.muellhorn.ca.

30. The Flames and the city of Calgary should be given in-person hearings for making us try to understand what’s happening between them three days before Christmas. Ryan Pike of Flames Nation has invested the time on this issue, and pointed out via Twitter, “To be clear: the Flames have NOT terminated the arena deal agreement as of right now. They have declared to the city their INTENTION to terminate the deal.” It’s arm-twisting season.

31. It’s been a challenging time in Arizona, but all of the recent arena discourse pales in comparison to the loss of Matt Shott. The Coyotes’ senior director of hockey development died last weekend of liver cancer, at the ridiculously young age of 34. Shott invested himself in the growth of youth hockey in Arizona. Whatever happens in the future, he left a positive legacy on young fans and players in the region.

32. I’m going to try and take a few days. We will drop the Christmas/Holiday Party podcast on Friday. Not as long as last year’s, but some new, fun guests and hopefully a good listen for all of you. This will be the final 32 Thoughts blog of the 2021 Calendar Year, with a return the week of Jan. 3. Thank you for all your consumption, hope you have a great holiday season. Do whatever it takes to get that mental break.

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