Opinion | Inside the NHL: No pause, but the Olympics and an 82-game season are in serious jeopardy

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That escalated quickly.

The NHL went from having a handful of players in COVID-19 protocol to more than 100 over a matter of days last week, raising doubts about whether they’d even be able to limp to the holiday break without first pausing the season.

There were extensive discussions on that topic between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association before it was decided Sunday afternoon that they’d forge on.

They are doing so on a limited basis, though, with the Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens both shut down through the holiday break due to concerns about cross-border travel — joining Calgary, Florida, Colorado, Boston and Nashville among those already on an extended hiatus.


The NHL has tried to muscle through a spike in the Omicron variant spreading across the continent to keep as much of the schedule as possible intact. That has become increasingly in vain with 39 games already disrupted and more potentially to follow depending on how teams can manage the rapidly spreading virus.

The decision not to take an early pause before the holiday break starting Dec. 23 was reached by league medical experts because there have been a low number of positive cases resulting in concerning symptoms or serious illness among players, coaches and staff.

Plus there’s no guarantee we wouldn’t see similar outbreaks if everyone took 10 days off and reconvened in January.

Now in serious jeopardy is the Beijing Olympic tournament, with the current number of postponements almost assuredly constituting the “material” interruption to the schedule that would allow the NHL to withdraw itself from the event.

However, the league seems intent on leaving that decision to the players. Talks between the sides are ongoing and a decision could come within days.

The players negotiated the right to return to the Games, but also have a shared interest in trying to stage this season in the best fashion possible with a large debt to the owners still owing from the pandemic.

The events of the last 21 months have cost the NHL as much as $4 billion (U.S.), according to a recent estimate by commissioner Gary Bettman. He predicted leaguewide revenues of $5.2 billion for 2021-22 during the recent board of governors meeting, but already those may be out of date with Canadian buildings being stripped back to half or even zero capacity during this Omicron surge.

Just getting in a full 82-game schedule stands as a challenge.

Even if the league retakes control of February’s three-week Olympic break there are significant building conflicts to navigate. There’s already a crush of games piling up on the back half of this regular season.

Pity the schedule-maker.

The NHL and NHLPA have introduced more stringent protocols for players and staff, including mask-wearing at all times except while exercising or eating, but this new variant has shown signs of being much more transmissible than those that came before it.

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Boosters aren’t required, but have been encouraged. They should help.

But ultimately there’s only so much that can be controlled in this kind of environment, which is why a paused season was back on the table for the first time since March 2020.

They’ve chosen to avoid it — for the time being, anyway.

Reflections on Mo

Paul Maurice was a head coach in the NHL for more than five years before he became a star. That occurred during an unexpected run to the Stanley Cup final in 2002, which included a six-game series victory over the Leafs by his Carolina Hurricanes.

This was an era before social media and before viral video, remember.

Maurice didn’t have a huge profile, but captivated reporters from the podium throughout that Eastern Conference final series.

It ultimately helped put him on the radar for the Leafs head coaching job, which he took in 2006.

What’s notable about Maurice is that he didn’t relish the media spotlight as much as it might have looked like from afar. He had to work himself up for those virtuoso Q-and-A performances, like the one we saw last week in Winnipeg when he eloquently stepped down as Jets coach.

At his core, Maurice always came across as a deeply decent man. He treated people with respect and flashed a wry sense of humour. It should not be overlooked that he pointed to burnout or fatigue when discussing his decision to step aside now.

“It has a lot to do with the last two years of me not loving coming to the rink as much as I need to love to come to the rink, and I always have,” said Maurice. “Even when things were sh—y with bad teams I loved coming to the rink, and it was more of a grind for me.

“And this fan base, this city, these players, all of you, should expect more than that. You deserve better than that.

“I’m not embarrassed by it, I’m not. At all. I’ve got a lot of games in and I’ve lived every one of them, and I’ve enjoyed them. But I stopped enjoying them as much.”

All the best, Paul, and congrats on a hell of a run.


Way too early Stanley cup finals matchup???? — @LetsTalkHockey9

Let’s get wild and crazy: I’m taking Flames vs. Maple Leafs. Covering an all-Canadian Stanley Cup final is on my career bucket list, and these are two of the top-performing teams this season.

Does the World Cup of Hockey’s team North America roster win the Stanley Cup if they played in the NHL with the players in the current stage of their careers. — @matt_w74

McDavid. Matthews. MacKinnon. You could start fitting those guys for rings if they were teammates right now.

Why is Buck Showalter back in baseball? — @thunderclap2u

Because the universe has decided the Mets can’t have nice things.

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What’s your best story covering a game where you had an article due under a tight deadline and the game result completely flipped at the last minute? — @FrankConforti07

Two come readily to mind: Game 7 of the Leafs-Bruins series in 2013 was a deadline disaster, but at least there was the intermission before overtime to perform surgery on the original story and half save it. The most challenging one came early in my career while covering the 2004 Canadian Open, when Mike Weir lost a three-shot lead on the back nine and fell short in a playoff with Vijay Singh. That was a big moment and I was short on job experience. Alas, my completed “Mike Weir wins the Canadian Open” story never saw the light of day.

Favourite Christmas story/movie? — @LadyStanley

“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” stands the test of time. “Love Actually” still pulls at my heartstrings. I watch both every year.

If you were stuck on a desert island with 5 people (anyone, dead or alive) … who would you choose and why? — @AndrewSaldanha

1. My mom: I’d love to be able to sit in the sun with her and have another conversation.

2. Anthony Bourdain: A bon vivant who would make sure we’re well fed and hydrated.

3. Gord Downie: We’re going to need music.

4. Tiger Woods: The only athlete I cheered for as a teenager and still root for today.

5. Michael Saylor: For my money, Saylor is the most incisive thinker of our time. He’d keep everyone’s mind sharp on the island.

What toothpaste do you use Chris? — @TOSportsAdam

I’m brand neutral. Anything minty and on sale.

How tall are you in scrambled eggs? — @lbluhm84

This is the weirdest question in the history of #AskCJ. I’m not tall, but you’d need to scramble eggs for three straight days to get them to my height.

What’s the largest animal you think you could take in hand-to-hand combat? A hypothetical MMA or wrestling match, whichever your preference. — @LeafyTV

OK, this one might be weirder. I’m not sure I could handle anything above a hamster. I’m a lover, not a fighter.


Interim Jets head coach Dave Lowry has a chance to retain the job beyond this season, but if the organization ends up looking elsewhere another person of interest is Pascal Vincent … Kristian Reichel, recalled by Winnipeg on Sunday, chose sweater No. 87 … Prior to the Leafs having two games cancelled over the weekend, sources say players voiced concern about the scheduled Sunday visit to Seattle. They were worried about crossing the border, getting a positive COVID test and being unable to return before Christmas … The final Canada-U.S. tune-up before the Olympic women’s hockey tournament goes Monday in Minnesota. Canada leads the series 4-2, with Marie-Philip Poulin scoring two straight OT winners … If the NHL pulls out of the men’s tournament in Beijing, Finland would be a great bet to win gold among the “B” teams … Ottawa’s Thomas Chabot is playing nearly a minute more per game than anyone else in the NHL, averaging 27:20 to Zach Werenski’s 26:29 … The Minnesota Wild are close to an extension with head coach Dean Evason … Calgary had 32 people in COVID protocols this past week: 19 players, three coaches and 10 members of the support staff … On Dec. 20 of last year, the NHL announced plans for the 56-game 2021 season. Feels like a lifetime ago … Auston Matthews is on pace for a 59-goal season … Hands up anyone who pegged Anaheim Ducks forward Troy Terry as a top-20 scorer this deep into December.

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C.J.’s Top Five

This will be the final Inside The NHL column before the new year. Here are the top five things I appreciated about hockey in 2021.

1. The fans Having attended far too many games in empty arenas last season, the return of real energy was life-affirming. The sport isn’t the same without a soundtrack from the stands.

2. Robin Lehner It takes real guts to speak as openly as the Golden Knights goaltender has about mental health. Respect.

3. The Lightning Winning one Cup during a pandemic is special, but adding a second is legendary. Deep, skilled and resilient, Tampa has a real shot at the three-peat.

4. Jack Campbell You’d struggle to find anyone more real than the Maple Leafs goaltender. His aw-shucks, praise-deflecting style was unaffected by a breakout year.

5. The Zegras Somehow there was debate about Trevor Zegras’ insane flipped pass from behind the net for a goal earlier this month, but there’s already been another in the Western Hockey League. This is how things evolve and move forward.

Parting thought

We’ve already endured a lot and it looks like we’re descending into another difficult period. The mental challenges are as real as the public health ones right now. Be good to each other, show grace and have a safe holiday season.

Chris Johnston is a Toronto-based journalist with a new gaming company. His work will be seen on the website and app for the new gaming company, and also in the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterchris


Conversations are opinions of our readers and are subject to the Code of Conduct. The Star does not endorse these opinions.

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