This Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the NHL suspending its 2019-20 season amid COVID-19. The pandemic upended everyone’s daily lives and routines, and it put the NHL season on pause for four months before returning for a postseason — though some teams went 10 months without any game action. ESPN asked more than a dozen people around the game to share what they learned over this past year.
Nick Foligno, Columbus Blue Jackets forward: “I learned how much the game is ingrained in me. It made me realize, hopefully, I’m not ready to get out of the game soon. I realized how much I missed just playing hockey. The NHL can sometimes become a grind when you play this long, but it refreshed my feelings toward the game. Because when it gets taken away from you, and you don’t have anything you really set yourself up for, you realize how much it is part of you. And I’m proud of that. I realize how much I truly love it.”
Blake Bolden, Los Angeles Kings pro scout: “When the pandemic hit, I had been scouting for three months. I was just getting my feet wet. I was just getting comfortable with the travel and the organization and understanding the language. And then boom, everything happened and everything was shut down. I was really bummed at first. And then I said, ‘You know what? I missed a whole three months of hockey that I could catch up on right now and learn every single player in my division like the back of my hand.’
“It’s just about how you look at things. I made a gym with my boyfriend in our garage — we scrambled to get all of these weights and plates from Marketplace. I started gardening again because I had more time. I made myself an e-book for vegan food. I just made things because I had time. And it made me feel happier. So I think adaptability and having the right mindset is one thing I will take with myself everywhere. Anything can change at any given moment, and it’s all about how you respond to those adversities.”
Peter Laviolette, Washington Capitals coach: “They say that maybe people are tired being around their families, with so much family time lately, I found it to be the exact opposite. My boys are 21, 22 now. They went to prep school when I was in Philly. They weren’t around much when I was in Nashville — they finished prep school and went to college so I don’t get to see them that much. My daughter has been with us through Nashville, but we didn’t get to be all together as a family. Through the pandemic, my boys were home, my family was back together and I found that to be pretty special. It’s the fact that it brought my family home and gave me a chance to spend time with them and reconnect with them, and I really loved every minute of it.”
Marie Philip-Poulin, Team Canada forward: “Not taking things for granted. During this time — which was a little bit rough — things got taken away easily. You put things in perspective. Live one day at a time, make it the best it can be, and live fully. That’s what I learned.”
Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks defenseman: “I had a lot of time to reflect. For me, I realized how important family and friends are in your life — the relationships with people. Health and family are everything.”
Kevin Weekes, NHL Network analyst/former NHL goalie: “The pandemic reinforced a few things for me, including how important your living space is. I’ve always been about making your home your sanctuary. I’ve always done that. If you prioritize wellness or relaxation, you shouldn’t be relying on your trip to the resort to achieve that. If you enjoy things that are nourishing, entertainment, restorative, whatever, find a way to re-create that. Find a way to do it in your home, that is accessible or achievable to you.
“There are so many variables out of our control. You can’t control the weather, you can’t control lockdowns or government restrictions. If you can take it upon yourself to control your controllables, that’s really huge. The less things you can be dependent on, the better.”
Ian Mack, sports scientist/performance coach to several NHL players: “During the pandemic, I learned that the world changes quickly, and we always have to be ready to adapt on the fly. Also, I learned to use Zoom.”
Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins defenseman: “I learned how easy it was to dial in when everything else is taken away. There was no travel, there was no anything. There was barely any leaving the house. From a workout and diet perspective, it was really easy. I was going to the grocery store, planning all my meals, getting all the things I needed to be a good professional, and I felt really good about that. It’s hard when you’re on the road all the time … harder to stick to a diet and things like that. But it was easy, it was nice.”
Jeff Carter, Los Angeles Kings forward: “I learned that I’m not good sitting around doing nothing.”
Gabriel Vilardi, Los Angeles Kings forward: “I learned how close we all are. How this one thing literally impacted everyone in the world the same way. We’re all doing the same things — staying inside, being careful — and you saw how it affects everyone, and how it affects everyone mentally. You realized how connected we all are.”
Lee Stempniak, Arizona Coyotes hockey data strategist: “I have three kids, so what I learned is what a great job teachers do. I was trying to teach computer programming and Spanish to my twin daughters in kindergarten, and it was way above my head. So a whole new appreciation for teachers and how much they brighten up kids’ days. Because my kids, last year when they got to do a Zoom with their teachers, their faces lit up.”
Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings forward: “I’ve really realized how much of a homebody I am. I really appreciate being home. I just bought a house a couple years ago, and I think with our lives as professional athletes, there’s a lot of coming and going. A lot of packing bags, trips. So just to have that first three or four months of lockdown and quarantine, I was home and I just appreciated it. I got a Bernedoodle puppy, so that obviously helped make it feel a lot like home.”
Marc Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks assistant coach: “I learned how important hygiene is. I think we all learned a lot about that, and the importance of washing your hands, wearing a mask. Hygiene became so important.”
Rob Blake, Los Angeles Kings GM: “Virtual learning. The word ‘virtual,’ I’m not sure I really got it myself until a year ago. It’s really helped with communication with staff. A lot of times you get in the middle of the year, you get into the routine grind. Scouts are so far apart you usually have one meeting or two meetings a year where you bring in everyone. Now, basically anytime you would pick up a phone call, we do it virtually. We use Microsoft Teams, and now it’s face to face. The inclusion of that, the communication of the staff, has gotten so much better. I don’t think that will go away now. We find it a benefit. This is way better.”
Judd Moldaver, senior VP of Wasserman Hockey: “I suppose a consciousness and appreciation throughout the pandemic to be so lucky to have such great family, friends, colleagues and clients in my life. These are extraordinary times. During it all, it was a reminder that life continues to present unexpected challenges, and you have to adjust to face them. Chess, not checkers. And just try to have a positive attitude.”
Jim Corsi, Columbus Blue Jackets director of goaltending: “I found that there are a lot of ways to be distracted, because a lot of us are used to a routine. Suddenly it’s really become a personalized thing. I’m not going to the rink, nobody’s setting the agenda — it can easily become quite rudderless. In my case, I’ve been fortunate that I’ve learned how to use video to interact with a lot of the athletes I’m mentoring or watch tape. I’ve also learned, as much as I’ve learned through video, there’s still a lot of value to see guys live in action. You can see the fear more readily, you can see subtleties that cameras won’t pick up because of the camera angle or if it’s out of view.
“And in terms of hockey, I miss the players, I miss being in the locker room — the banter, the silliness, the stories. When I talk to players who leave the game, it’s always those moments in the locker room, the team atmosphere, that they miss. The pandemic has also really intensified the value of friends and family, and what we used to take for granted.”
Eddie Olczyk, NBC broadcaster/former NHL player: I think early for me, it brought me back to a place in 2017 when I was going through my cancer battle because I was pretty much socially distanced and by myself and hiding in my basement for six months. Besides the odd time of working and getting out, it brought me back to a time when I was sick, a pretty low and emotional place. I realized that all of these things — being socially distanced, wearing a mask — it’s not that bad.
“When I was going through my [colon cancer] battle, I had enough quiet time to last me a lifetime. Now we’ve had a lot of alone time, and it gives you time for thought, but also wondering and worrying about things, wondering if things are going to end, and how it’s going to forge ahead. And it’s been a battle. I don’t know if anyone is going to know the long term psychological effects this is going to have on us all. I’d like to think somewhere down the line, we’ll all be better for having had to go through it. It’s also National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, so as people are stickhandling or navigating the pandemic, it’s a reminder we have to take care of ourselves and those around us and get checked out by doctors if you’re not feeling well.”
Stephen Walkom, senior VP and director of NHL officiating: “Life can change in an instant and things we love — like visiting my grandma or watching the kids play hockey — can quickly be taken away. I learned to enjoy the sun coming up or going down, the smell of coffee or a fire and the taste of a caramel sundae more than before, as happiness may not only be in what was taken away during the pandemic but also derived from some simple pleasures many have at home.”
Emptying the notebook
The first two stops of the 2021 PWHPA Dream Gap Tour — games at Madison Square Garden and the United Center — are over, and there has been an undeniable breakout star: 23-year-old Abby Roque.
The 5-foot-7 forward is a good bet to make the 2021 Women’s Worlds roster. It sounds like the tournament, hosted by Nova Scotia, is tentatively scheduled for May, and Roque has an inside track to make the roster, which has several openings thanks to recent retirements from Meghan Duggan and the Lamoureux twins. And her performance over the last two weeks just further cements her case. Roque is the tour leader with five points in four games. And then there’s this, from Hilary Knight: “I think she’s going to be the best player in the world. Plain and simple.”
That’s significant for Roque, considering she’s also a University of Wisconsin graduate and cites the 31-year-old Knight as one of her favorite players to watch in middle school and high school. Then again, anyone who has witnessed Roque’s journey has seen this ascent for a while. A 2020 Patty Kazmaier finalist, she finished her Wisconsin career ninth on the program’s scoring list (170 points) and seventh in assists (114), plus/minus (plus-136) and power play goals (21).
“I’m not surprised at all to see her absolutely ripping it up,” says Canadian national team player Sarah Nurse, who overlapped with Roque for one year at Wisconsin and was assigned as her senior mentor. “It’s something I saw in her as a 17-,18-year-old girl. She has the confidence, poise and skill that not a lot of people have.”
Roque grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, which hugs the Canadian border. Her father, Jim, is a pro scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs and a Canadian citizen. Roque admits she grew up with quite a few Hockey Canada shirts and hats, and she “cheered for Team Canada in so many things.”
Nurse would tease her a bit in Wisconsin, saying it wasn’t too late to join her friends up North. But now, there’s no doubt Roque is with USA Hockey. “It’s funny to me, because it actually was never really a question for me,” she said. “My dad brought it up to me once, ‘You could play in the Hockey Canada program.’ And I was like, ‘Well, why would I do that?’ I grew up in America, I live in America, so I never really questioned it.”
Roques is also proud of her Native American heritage. She is a member of Wahnapitae First Nation, and her uncle is the chief of her tribe. “Where I’m from, I know so many indigenous people, and played with so many indigenous hockey players,” Roque said. “And then I go to college, I realized all of the other students and my teammates might not even know another indigenous person besides me. It was so normalized for me growing up because there were so many people like me around me. Now I realize how few indigenous people are in hockey. So it’s something I like to highlight and make known. Hockey, and especially women’s hockey, is a very white sport. It doesn’t have to be. We’re always talking about ways we can grow the game.”
Added Nurse: “It’s cool to see her standing in her power, because she realizes she does have a voice. She feels she’s representing a whole group of people and can be a role model for them. When she stepped on campus, she let it be known: ‘This is where I’m from, I made it, this is who my family is.’ It makes me proud to see how proud she is.”
Roque played boys hockey through high school. “For me to play girls hockey, I would have gone across the river to Canada and play with the girls there,” she said. She would sometimes get fall or spring girls tournaments in, and she considered going to Shattuck St. Mary’s, a renowned boarding school. “But I just felt like, for me and my development, I wanted to stay and play with the guys team that I grew up playing with.”
It was an adjustment to switch to women’s hockey full time. “Checking was the one that I expected,” Roque said. “I got a lot of penalties my freshman year. And they were all just body contact, because you forget your own strength. I always play physical, so I had to learn how to lay off the gas a little bit. … The girls’ game is very go-go-go, high tempo. On the forecheck, you have a girl coming at you all the time. In boys hockey, sometimes, they sit back, and make you come to them.”
At Wisconsin, coaches were always telling Roque to shoot more and hold onto the puck longer. “Whereas in boys hockey, if I held onto the puck too long, I was probably going to get smooshed,” Roque said. “And in boys hockey, my shot wasn’t fantastic. I was kind of there to make the passes to the players to score.”
The experience, Roque figures, is what helped her become such a well-rounded player. “In boys’ hockey, I was tough, but I was more of the player who could make the right pass, be a playmaker. In girls hockey, I’m a playmaker too, but I’m also known as a more physical player.”
Roque’s goal is to keep improving. “With me, it’s about not getting stagnant,” she said. “Like my whole life was about working hard, and you can’t stop now. It’s about learning and adapting with the game because the game is always changing, and there’s always something you can learn.”
Throughout the Dream Gap Tour, Roque has enjoyed the challenge of going up against Brianna Decker — another Wisconsin alumna, who, like Knight, has her name and picture all over the Badgers’ athletics complex. “We play a similar game, try to be strong on pucks, physical, make the right plays, just want to be solid,” Roque said. “Playing against her is obviously such a challenge. She challenges me on faceoffs every time, and she’s so good at them. Playing against a great player, you can watch the little things she does, and try to figure out what she does, and what you can do too.”
Three stars of the week
Nobody was as productive as the Golden Knights’ winger this week, who had two goals and eight assists in just four games. The real story here is that he had five (!) primary assists in one game, becoming the first to do it since Artemi Panarin in 2017. Only five players in NHL history have ever put up six or more.
The longest-tenured Rangers veteran notched his second hat trick of the season, and this time it came in a win. Kreider has scored nine goals over his last seven games, for a team-high 13 on the season (five more than anybody else). “When you score at the rate he is, he means an awful lot for a team that’s struggled to score goals this year,” coach David Quinn said.
— Rangers on MSG (@RangersMSGN) March 5, 2021
3. Thatcher Demko, G, Vancouver Canucks
He stopped 95 of 98 shots over three starts, all wins, including one against the mighty Maple Leafs. Demko has been on a tear for weeks now and is up to a .913 save percentage over the season, with those in Vancouver touting that he’s looking like Bubble Demko once again. That’s the highest of compliments.
What we liked this week
• RIP to Walter Gretzky, Canada’s hockey dad. Had the son of Belarusian immigrants never built a backyard rink, who knows what would have happened? I have loved learning more about Walter Gretzky’s life. The themes that come through are grace, work ethic and humility. He worked for Bell for three decades, including long after his son became the most famous hockey player on the planet.
Residents of Brantford, Canada, pay their respects to Wayne Gretzky’s father, Walter, by tapping their hockey sticks as the funeral procession made its way from the church.
And if you see Wayne Gretzky following Alex Ovechkin around on the road when Ovi gets close to breaking his goal record, you know who to thank. As Wayne Gretzky remembered in April: “When I was breaking Gordie Howe’s record, my dad said to me at one point in time, ‘Your record is going to be broken one day, and I hope you have as much class and dignity as Gordie Howe has had with you breaking his record.’ And I hope I do. I hope I’m the first guy that’s able to shake his hand when he does break my record. I don’t think there’s any doubt in my mind that he has a great chance to do that.”
— St. Louis Blues (@StLouisBlues) March 2, 2021
This @Barzal_97 between-the-legs goal was FILTHY 🤯
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) March 6, 2021
MUST WATCH: BUZZER BEATER!
Victor Hedman gets it in with 0.1 seconds remaining! 🤯 @TBLightning win in OT 3-2!
— FOX Sports Bolts (@FOXSportsBolts) March 5, 2021
What we didn’t like this week
• Happy trails to Chicago Blackhawks blueliner Brent Seabrook. I have a lot of empathy for the 35-year-old Seabrook, who announced this week he cannot continue his hockey career due to mounting injuries. (It was his right hip, surgically repaired last year, that did him in). Seabrook wasn’t a guy who hung around in the locker room much to talk to the media, especially at morning skates, my bread and butter. But he was the guy that everyone on the team respected. Immensely. He was also the guy who welcomed teenager Kirby Dach into his home last season, helping the transition for the next era of Blackhawks. Seabrook is as proud as they come. That’s why it must be excruciating to have his career end this way, with the Blackhawks team doctor Michael Terry saying: “We have tried all available conservative treatments, and nothing has worked well enough for him to live life as an athlete.”
Seabrook fought like hell to be able to play in the bubble last summer, which he ultimately couldn’t. He fought some more to get back this season. His body wouldn’t allow it. I know it’s easy to joke about his decline the last few seasons, and his contract — which has three years remaining at $6.875 million — but I have all the respect for Seabrook as a person and wish him the best in his next chapter.
• Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson might be the most polarizing player in the league. I have heard people around the Washington organization suggest he could be the team captain, and I’ve heard some people say the forward has no place in the NHL. Wilson has been suspended four times, all for illegal or late hits. He steered clear of controversy since getting 20 games (reduced to 14) for checking Oskar Sundqist’s head in a 2018 preseason game. But here’s the thing with the Department of Player Safety. If you’re Brett Pesce, who doesn’t have a history of dangerous play, you get a $5,000 fine for slew footing and move on. But if you have Wilson’s lengthy history and have had multiple conversations with him on how to clean up your game, you get much less leeway
I actually don’t think Wilson’s hit on Brandon Carlo was automatically worthy of discipline. Two referees on the ice didn’t call it a penalty. It could be argued Carlo’s head wasn’t the main point of contact. Wilson didn’t take strides in lead up. As his coach Peter Laviolette passionately defended: “If this is a suspendable play, then all hitting is probably going to have to be removed.” But Carlo ended up in the hospital (wishing all the best to him), and it’s Wilson who we’re talking about.
Barry Melrose loved the intensity he saw from the Bruins after Tom Wilson’s hit on Brandon Carlo.
So despite the DOPS admitting “aspects of this hit that may skirt the line between suspendable and non-suspendable,” it was determined that a repeat offender causing a defenseless player to forcefully make contact with the glass and end up in the hospital yields a seven-game suspension. And despite liking Wilson a lot as a player, I can’t argue with that. Neither can Wilson, who will not appeal the decision and forfeit $311,781.61.
• The NHL designated one road hotel per city for visiting teams this year as a way to help streamline COVID-19 protocols. The San Jose Fairmont was the choice near the Shark Tank but no longer after it abruptly filed Chapter 11 on Friday. That meant all of the guests were evicted on the spot, including the Golden Knights, who were in town for a two-game set.
“It was a surreal experience,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “Hopefully this is the end of the COVID year, but it was almost the topping on the cake for what the last year has been for everybody in the world. Just another thing thrown at you, another thing to deal with.”
Top games on tap this week
Note: All times Eastern.
Minnesota crashed a bit after its six-game winning streak, going 1-2-1 on its last road trip. The Wild can get things back on track with a two game-set against the West-leading Golden Knights (this one receiving the national NBC Sports treatment). The Wild are on a much-needed homestand. They’ve played in Minnesota twice since Jan. 31.
The Kings are one of the season’s pleasant surprises. After a rough two years of rebuilding, they are looking competitive again. They’ve fallen out of the playoff picture but could bump back in if they take down the Avalanche, who are still battling some injury issues.
It’s always an interesting time when the Blackhawks face off against their former longtime coach, Joel Quenneville. But the storyline here is two teams holding down playoff spots in the Central Division, despite a lot of skeptics ahead of the season. (Let’s be honest, the Panthers aren’t that surprising, but the Blackhawks on the other hand …)
Social media post of the week
When you stick around the NHL long enough, you witness some wonky things.
When the jersey you wore as a rookie was brought back as a throwback.
What a legend 🤣 pic.twitter.com/vbm4UCydMw
— San Jose Sharks (@SanJoseSharks) March 2, 2021