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31thoughts2021

32 Thoughts: Canucks slowly moving towards inevitable changes

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• “What are you hearing about the Olympics?”
• Why it’s an interesting time around Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment
• Martin Brodeur and the Devils’ third jersey

The aftermath of Vancouver’s 4-1 loss to Pittsburgh was so awkward, so cringeworthy, it was impossible to believe something wouldn’t change on Thanksgiving Thursday. One longtime executive said “it’s almost a mercy killing after a night like that.”

There was JT Miller rolling his eyes at a “Do you think everyone is buying in?” question, responding with “I don’t know,” because he didn’t want to say what he really thought.

There was captain Bo Horvat sighing, “It’s exhausting. We talk about the same things all the time.”

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Everyone in the organization knows changes are coming. Whether in the front office, on the bench or on the ice, they are coming. The question is the timetable. There’s some push for a quick move, but also a realization you can’t rush yourself into something insane. One executive told me years ago you worry in times like these about making a “tombstone trade,” a deal so bad that it is remembered forever. I think that’s the biggest current internal wrestling match: How fast do we do this and what is the first move?

There were a few hours on Thursday I thought something was going to happen. I really thought those who believe “we have to do something right now…anything!” were going to win the day. That obviously didn’t occur, whether in Vancouver or Columbus, where the team practised in advance of Friday’s game against the impressive Blue Jackets. (The Athletic’s Thomas Drance reported Miller snapped at a poorly-organized drill.)

We will see what Friday brings. There are so many rumours right now, it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Some of that is because the organization is doing external research on potential candidates, both in the front office and behind the bench. Obviously, you try to keep that as quiet as possible, but there’s always the risk of leakage. Team Canada is expected to name Claude Julien as its head coach at the upcoming Channel One and Spengler Cups, with the added possibility of coaching the Olympic Team if NHLers don’t go. (Bruce Boudreau and Scott Walker are the expected assistants.)

It is believed that if the Canucks wished to speak to Julien, for example, Montreal would not block permission.

It’s stressful, and everyone internally — from the offices to the dressing room — is on-edge waiting for something to happen. Best way out is for everyone to row in the same direction, but that clearly isn’t happening.

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32 THOUGHTS

1. It’s now a daily question: “What are you hearing about the Olympics?” The answer: more and more concern. There’s the COVID issue and the moral dilemma, as the women’s tennis tour remains unconvinced about Peng Shuai’s safety. With 46 days until the NHL can withdraw from competition without financial penalty, 70 days until the women’s competition begins and 76 before the men drop the puck, it’s very possible the questions get even more pointed. Diplomatic boycotts are being floated, although that means athletes could still compete. Undoubtedly, some are already wrestling with the desire to validate all of the work towards your life goal of Olympic participation, versus the moral imperative of human rights.

And then there’s COVID. As we are being reminded, we don’t control the virus. The virus impacts us. On that issue, it’s likely Sidney Crosby spoke for many last Saturday night. Following Pittsburgh’s 2-0 win in Toronto, Team Canada’s captain-to-be said, “Everyone feels pretty strongly they’d like to be there, but I try not to think too far ahead…some of that stuff you can’t control. I’m preparing like we’re going. That’s the best way to look at it.” Players have stuck to the mantra that this was promised in the most recent CBA, and it remains incredibly important to them. No one needs an explanation of how meaningful it is to be an Olympian. Generally, the NHL has plugged its nose and said, “We made a promise.”

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2. Last week, however, things took a negative turn. Three Ottawa postponements certainly hurt, although I don’t think three rescheduled games will be enough to cancel participation. What’s the red-line number? Not sure there’s a specific answer. What was of greater concern is how doctors felt the need to cancel games because COVID could not be contained by enhanced protocols. Unvaccinated players/staff (and, as far as we know, that’s only one person) are tested every three days, but once there are positives, everyone is tested daily.

“You look around the league, it’s very rare that (only) one guy gets it,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said after defenceman Ethan Bear tested positive. “It’s an unfortunate thing everybody’s dealing with, and we’ll take it as it comes.” Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello added Zdeno Chara to the team’s expanding COVID list on Tuesday, and there are a lot of questions about why that team hasn’t had games postponed. All you have to do is watch Lamoriello’s media conferences to understand how he feels about the situation. Doctors are making these calls, and they believe that situation is better contained than Ottawa’s, although things are unpredictable. That’s not going to satisfy the Islanders or their fans, but San Jose had seven players on the list (plus coach Bob Boughner) and no cancellations.

3. According to the Athlete’s Playbook released last month by the International Olympic Committee, “The location and length of your isolation period (after a positive COVID test) will be determined by the Chinese health authorities, depending on the severity and symptoms of your infection.” But, the possibility of three weeks has been raised, longer than NHL protocols. And that has individual teams spooked to Everest-like heights. There’s a lot of frustration about testing, with the amount of false positives — one of them requiring Detroit’s Dylan Larkin to be pulled in-game — but this is a whole other level.

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The Islanders freaked when John Tavares broke his leg in Sochi, but there’s got to be an understanding injuries happen. As we get closer to February, more and more clubs are looking at the landscape and saying, “Yeah, we don’t like this.” It will be a 10-week sprint to the playoffs once the Olympics conclude. There are a lot of places where you can go out and have fun: Chicago, Montreal, Los Angeles, Nashville, New York — and Vegas, where a chunk of Olympians will attend All-Star Weekend right before a flight to China. At least one of the NHL outbreaks is connected to a team rookie party, so strict protocols are being considered for All-Star. But Vegas is still going to be a challenge. It’s never quiet there, which is why we love it.

4. You’re going to see trade chatter pick up over the next week or so. Biggest challenge: so many teams are cap tight. Hard to pull off dollar-in, dollar-out.

5. On Kevin Fiala: Minnesota’s at the top of the Central Division, and GM Bill Guerin is not going to make his team worse. He’s also not going to trade Fiala simply because of a slump, although the forward scored a big one in Tampa and another in the shootout Wednesday at New Jersey. So, if anything does happen, it’s going to be part of a plan to make them better.

6. Buffalo has to be looking for a goalie. Aaron Dell was pulled following the first period of Wednesday’s 5-1 loss to Boston. Unfortunately, Craig Anderson’s return date is not certain, and the Sabres need to give their young players help behind them. The challenge is teams still in the race might not be willing to give up any of their top three goalies for their own insurance. You want an option that can help you. How many are available?

7. As reported locally, Evander Kane resumed skating in San Jose. Apparently, he’s been doing so for a couple of weeks. The Sharks are being beyond careful about commenting on his status, with Kane’s suspension a week away from conclusion. My personal theory is he goes to the AHL to get some games, but again, that’s a personal theory. I do think the Sharks have let it be known they would be willing to retain salary in a trade, but it’s hard to see a market at this time. (TMZ had an update on Kane’s legal situation Monday.)

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8. It’s incredible to watch Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. That’s not news, but it doesn’t get said enough. Draisaitl is the only Oiler besides Wayne Gretzky to have 40 points prior to 20 games. That’s mind-blowing. Really wanted McDavid to make a charge at Gretzky’s record 51-game point streak to start a season. His 17-game run ended in Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to Dallas. The Stars outshot the Oilers 7-5 during the 12:37 of five-on-five Miro Heiskanen played against McDavid. There are performances during the season that put you on the Norris map, and that’s one for Heiskanen.

9. Was disappointed to see McDavid take heat for the Architectural Digest spread. We want hockey players to show more personality, let down their guard — and there’s flak for doing so. Can’t have it both ways.

10. Also having a Hart Trophy start: Alexander Ovechkin. He’s a reminder that the great ones evolve no matter age or obstacles. With three assists Wednesday against Montreal, he has 18 in 20 games. That’s the same as last year (in 45 games) and one fewer than 2019-20 (in 68 games). The most he’s ever had in a season is 59. The only person who could stop this might be Nicklas Backstrom — taking all those assists when he returns to the lineup. Ovechkin’s also on-pace for 39 wrist-shot goals, which would be 10 more than his previous career-high (2015-16); four slapshot goals, which would be one fewer than his career-low (five in 2010-11). Most impressively, he’s never had more than 112 points or been in triple digits since 2009-10. Right now, he’s trending at 135. Very impressive.

11. It’s going to be an interesting time around Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. Prior to making its push for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Fenway Sports Group — through an intermediary — approached MLSE about the possibility of a merger. This was 12-18 months ago. It wasn’t the right time and didn’t go far, but that would have been one monstrous powerhouse, potentially featuring Liverpool, the Leafs, the Raptors, Toronto FC, Scotiabank Arena, the Argonauts and a baseball team. (That would have been the incredibly interesting one. FSG owns the Red Sox, while my employer, Rogers, owns the Blue Jays along with 37.5 per cent of MLSE. So, something would have to give.) There’s change at the top of our company and The Globe and Mail reported that could mean a sale of the Jays. “Everybody is watching what Fenway is doing,” one source in the banking industry said. “And it’s not going to be the last time MLSE is asked.” That same person, but the way, said Fenway is aggressive and far from finished, beyond the Penguins.

12. It was denied, but one of the names rumoured in the mix for Pittsburgh was Ryan Smith, who owns the NBA’s Utah Jazz. From what I’ve read and heard about him (on ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski’s podcast), he’d be a good get for the NHL.

13. One thing that could get traction at the next GM meeting: is the cross-checking crackdown leading to increased kneeing and slewfoots? If you know there’s a greater chance for a penalty, do you kick out your skate or lead with a knee? But we’ve seen more fines for dangerous trips and/or slew foots — and a one-game suspension for San Jose’s Kevin Labanc. That was the first suspension for this offence in almost seven years. Meanwhile, Aleksander Barkov, Drew Doughty and Dmitri Jaskin have been injured by knees.

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14. When Colorado slightly stumbled out of the gate, there were some questions about whether Jared Bednar was in any trouble. Someone warned I’d look like an idiot if I went down that road, and the Avalanche recently announced a two-year extension, believed to be in the $2.25M per year range.

15. Earlier this season, Bednar spoke about the mission for Colorado this season: “We’ve been a good team, how do we become a great team?” He and his players have done reading on the topic, including From Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t, by Jim Collins; and Raise your Game: High-Performance Secrets from the Best of the Best, by Alan Stein Jr. The thing that stood out about the conversation is how much Bednar believes the group has the right on-ice approach.

“Our commitment to check is there,” he said. “Our group has bought in. When I first got here, we were a high rush-volume team. We didn’t have much o-zone play. We used to give up a lot on the rush and in d-zone coverage. We had to change: an aggressive forecheck, early reloads, pressing other teams.” Several of Colorado’s players have said the mental challenge was their biggest failure last playoff versus Vegas, and Bednar agrees that’s what they are trying to address. “Don’t be too high or too low. Shift to shift, always look forward to what’s coming next.”

16. Dallas is 2-0 since the 7-2 loss in Minnesota when Riley Tufte was a late scratch from what would have been a “home game” for him and his family. I wondered about spillover from that, because I’ve seen it seriously affect teams before. It happened in Toronto with Jason Spezza and in Arizona with Kyle Turris. The best medicine is to prevent them from happening in the first place, but it must be managed properly in the aftermath. You have to make it right with the player and the teammates.

17. One of the major reasons Calgary’s been so strong? Tuesday’s 4-2 win over Chicago was the first time all season Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk were on-ice for a five-on-five goal against. Reed Johnson tied it 2-2, before the Flames scored three straight. Gaudreau’s been on for 19 five-on-five goals, Tkachuk 15.

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18. Nashville spends three nights in Montreal, then falls behind 5-0 to the Canadiens in a 6-3 loss. Crescent St. remains undefeated.

19. Think Team Canada was hopeful Quinton Byfield’s rehab schedule might allow him to be available for the World Juniors, but the timing doesn’t look great. Still a ways away.

20. Small thing, but a big thing: during Toronto’s 6-2 victory over Los Angeles on Wednesday night Auston Matthews made sure to credit Nick Ritchie for a screen on Jason Spezza’s goal. Ritchie is clawing for success, and that wouldn’t go unnoticed or appreciated.

21. Know everyone’s talking about New Jersey’s “Jersey,” but I really, really love the shoes. Jillian Frechette, New Jersey’s Senior Vice-President of Marketing, explained the organization was impressed with the work of the Newark-based Dirty Soles Footwear Group, which led to a collaboration. Several pairs will be auctioned, benefitting the Devils’ Youth Foundation. They’re sharp, very impressive.

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22. Frechette arrived in New Jersey three years ago, months after franchise legend Martin Brodeur returned as Executive Vice-President of Business Development. The Devils’ third jersey quickly became a high-priority project for both. What did it teach Brodeur about the business? “How many people are involved and how much detail is involved,” he answered. “When you play hockey, it’s ‘What time do we practice and what time do you need me to show up?’”

Also liked that when they were initially going over ideas for the jersey, Frechette sent Brodeur a photo of his late father Denis representing Team Canada as a concept. During the 2012 Eastern Conference Final between the Devils and Rangers, I was on the train from Manhattan to Newark and said I was going to New Jersey during a phone call. This led to a hilarious exchange with a couple of fans where we debated if it was acceptable that I, as a Canadian, referred to it as “New Jersey” and not simply “Jersey.” In the end, it was decided that I, as a guest in the state, should simply accept what the locals call it and not be a rude visitor. (In hindsight, I wish I recorded this conversation.) So, when Brodeur said “Jersey” was selected for the front of the sweater because that’s what people from there call it, I get it.

23. Brodeur fought for black, feeling “players look bigger, stronger, meaner” in the colour. Frechette talked about the balance between simple and overloaded, the contrast of a black jersey and white ice, the drop-shadow on the lettering. You forget how much goes into this. Brodeur said he asked about the possibility of using actual goal-net twine for the laces below the neck, but it wasn’t feasible. Would have been a great little touch. What would Lamoriello have thought about it? “He would shake his head for sure,” Brodeur laughed, then he added that Lamoriello has shown on Long Island that he’s willing to bend — a little — for the times.

24. Which Devils alumnus will ask for the most freebies of this apparel? “Oh, Ken Daneyko for sure,” Brodeur said without pause. “Maybe Colin White, too.”

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25. New Jersey’s shown staying power, and not sure too many of us expected that with Jack Hughes out of the lineup and Mackenzie Blackwood battling injuries. Very much in the race as we hit the one-quarter mark. Brodeur credited increased depth up-and-down the lineup, more players able to step up and fill roles. “(Nico) Hischier, (Damon) Severson, (Jesper) Bratt…they’ve been in this league a while now,” he said. “They understand what it takes now to win.” Jonathan Bernier’s been big for them too. One of the more impressive storylines of the season is how many teams — Anaheim and Columbus leading the way — have been better than we thought.

26. Never seen more Twitter DMs waiting for waivers news than from Devils fans waiting on Nathan Bastian. Glad you were rewarded.

27. There’s been some excellent reporting around the USHL Omaha Lancers in the past week, as players fought back against ownership/management due to cost cutbacks and the treatment of former head coach Chadd Cassidy. As that situation continues to develop, one of the macro concerns involves ownership and/or franchising of teams by parents who have sons on the roster. That was the case in Omaha. The team is run by Anthony DiCesare, whose son, Christian, used to play for the Lancers. It’s not unique in that league, there are several similar situations. What this has done is heightened sensitivity to, coming out of COVID, could we see more of this, and how do we prevent that from happening? You don’t want to go through this anywhere else.

28. One of the great stories of this NHL season is Washington’s Zach Fucale becoming the first goalie in franchise history with a shutout in his NHL debut. Five years ago, he played with the ECHL’s Brampton Beast, and the staff there was thrilled to see that success. “There was no entitlement from him at all (considering he was a second-round NHL draft pick),” said Cary Kaplan, who was the team’s President and General Manager. “He embraced it.” After the cleanup was done following Beast games, staff would rent the ice to play some pickup. One night, Fucale asked to join them. “He comes up and says, ‘Mind if I play?’” Kaplan said. “He paid for the food and drinks that night. Our staff was saying they’d remember it for the rest of their lives.” Did Fucale play goal? “No, and he was still the best player on the ice.”

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29. Other key thing about Fucale in Brampton: “He had tremendous focus. His mindset…he always talked about himself as an NHL goalie. He’d be at the rink two or three hours before the rest of the team, because he wanted that extra time.” It’s a great reminder, control what you can control.

30. Jeff Marek reported last weekend the NHL did have a phone conversation with Quebec City, but it’s not seriously on the radar. Publicity stunt, and I don’t like to see true fans jerked around.

31. At Monday’s roast of Brett Hull for the Jamie Daniels Foundation, an autographed Nikita Kucherov hat with “$18M over the cap” written on it went for almost $500. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a bargain. Great buy for a great cause.

32. My son skates Sunday afternoon, where, in an adjoining rink, there’s a Leaside girls team that practices. Last weekend, there was a great scene where two of the players had a standoff to be the last one to get off the ice after it was over. They were laughing about it, and so was a coach trying to get them to move as the Zamboni got closer. It was nice to see, a realization of how much younger people missed over the last year. Good to see them playing and having fun again.





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31thoughts2021

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

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• 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.

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“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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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NHL has 8-10 officials in COVID-19 protocols

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As the National Hockey League continues to experience COVID-19 outbreaks across a number of organizations, some on-ice officials have been caught up in the rising number of coronavirus cases.

According to Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek, 8-10 NHL officials are in COVID protocols but the league is expecting five of them to be removed soon.

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.
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The NHL was forced to postpone five of the 10 games on the schedule Saturday due to outbreaks, with five teams — the Florida Panthers, Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators, Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames — all shut down until after the three-day Christmas break. So far on Saturday, 17 players have been added to COVID-19 protocols and five head coaches — including Maple Leafs bench boss Sheldon Keefe — are in protocols as well.

With cases rising seemingly every day this week, the NHL and NHLPA agreed to return to more strict rules to attempt to curb the spread of the virus during non-on-ice activity. Some of those rules — which will be in place until at least Jan. 7 — include wearing masks in all environments outside games, limiting the number of people interacting with players and more frequent testing.



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32 Thoughts: As urgency over COVID-19 grows, pausing schedule will be last resort

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• The latest on NHL players participating in the Olympics
• Are the Coyotes gauging the market on Jakob Chychrun?
• A conversation with Elvis

The names came pouring out as if shot from an uncontrolled firehose: Craig Smith. Brad Marchand. Sebastian Aho. Seth Jarvis. Elias Lindholm. Andrew Mangiapane. Brad Richardson. Adam Ruzicka. Chris Tanev. Nikita Zadorov. Noah Hanifin. Milan Lucic. Sean Monahan. Jordan Staal. Andrei Svechnikov. Ian Cole. Steven Lorentz. Ryan McLeod. Luke Schenn. Juho Lammikko. Dave Tippett. Brad Hunt. Whatever Nashville is dealing with among players and coaches.

Then, Morgan Frost and Tucker Poolman were pulled in-game.

All of them entered into COVID protocol. Undeniably, more to come. The NFL reported 62 positive tests. Less than 24 hours after beating the Arizona Cardinals on Monday Night Football, the Los Angeles Rams announced six positives. The NBA postponed two Chicago Bulls games and a Los Angeles Lakers practice (after one positive test). NBA Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo entered protocol, as did seven Brooklyn Nets. Even Manchester United had its Tuesday match called off.

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And, we’re all asking: “WTF?”

Just like sports brought COVID into the mainstream in March 2020, we’re here again with the Omicron variant. According to multiple sources, it is present among the NHL’s positive tests. The good news is current data indicates vaccination is effective against the worst symptoms/cases, and everyone (but one player) is there.

If there’s a concern right now about spread, simply by number of cases, it’s in Calgary. But we may not have a true picture until sometime Wednesday.

The NHL and NHLPA held a call Tuesday night, as urgency grew over two intertwined issues: Should more games be postponed and how much does this jeopardize player participation in the Olympics?

Pausing the schedule will be an absolute last resort. Everything else will be tried before going there. More likely: A return to much tougher protocols, reminiscent of last year’s incredibly challenging 2020 season — mask-wearing at all times, staying at home/in your hotel away from the rink. No restaurants, movie theatres, team parties, you name it. Teams moving from testing every three days to testing every day.

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Winter is worse for COVID-19 and the numbers are skyrocketing in the wrong direction.

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.

Some of the U.S.-based teams think a big part of the problem is slower test results in Canada. (The late Poolman pull is an indicator of that, but to be fair, Frost’s game was in Philadelphia.) There are more options for privately-owned testing south of the border, and they feel lengthy wait times for results lead to greater risks of outbreaks when playing in Canada. They are pointing at this week’s Boston/Calgary/Carolina/Vancouver crossover as proof.

I’m not sure that’s easily fixable, but, it’s definitely a talking point — a defect in the system.

I can definitely see teams across the border from home base being extremely concerned. Calgary didn’t fly to Chicago as scheduled because the Flames were worried players would be stranded in the States. Aho, Jarvis and a member of the Hurricanes’ training staff are currently trapped in Canada, although the Hurricanes are trying to find ambulance/private charter options. Hopefully, that happens. It would be absolutely brutal if the staffer misses what would be their child’s first Christmas.

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If you told me anyone on Columbus wasn’t crazy about facing Vancouver, could you really blame them?

At some point, if teams are going to be forced to play through COVID-crushed rosters, there must be cap relief to add extra bodies. No one should be forced to play shorthanded through this. Almost everyone is vaccinated. They’ve done what was asked of them, and there’s no excuse to make anyone more vulnerable to illness, exhaustion or injury because Omicron is more transmissible.

No more talk about, “Well, everyone should have managed the cap better.” It’s enough. Make it like bonus overages for next season. Whatever. It’s enough already. It affects the product, too.

As mentioned, the good news is that the vaccines are preventing serious symptoms in the majority of cases. There are players/staff who feel that, since they are doing what they’re supposed to do, only symptomatic players should be tested and/or prevented from playing. However, I’ve tested that theory and been told there’s no desire to risk a worst-case scenario if a COVID-positive player is knowingly allowed to play.

It’s almost impossible to draw any conclusions, because the world as we understand it could change in minutes. The variables change rapidly. Once again, we’re in that aggravating place where COVID’s spread is uncontrollable.

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Editor’s Note: The COVID-19 situation, in the NHL and around the world, is constantly evolving. Readers in Canada can consult the country’s public health website for the latest.



32 THOUGHTS

1. “I think the COVID explosion comes at the perfect time to back out of the Olympics,” one agent said Tuesday. There are spaceships full of non-players who think this way, but how do the players themselves feel? The NHLPA held two conference calls on Monday and another is scheduled for Wednesday. According to multiple sources, potential Olympians were told the risk is this: once they get on the flight to Beijing, they lose control of their personal destiny should they receive a positive COVID test.

According to the Athletes’ Playbook, released this week, “If you have a confirmed positive test: You will not be allowed to compete/continue your role. If you are symptomatic, you will be asked to stay at the designated hospital for treatment. If you are asymptomatic, you will be asked to stay in an isolation facility.” At a hospital, you will be discharged when: “Your body temperature returns to normal for three consecutive days; respiratory symptoms improve significantly; lung imaging shows significant improvement; you have two consecutive negative PCR test results with a sample interval of at least 24 hours; and you display no other COVID-19 symptoms.” At an isolation facility: “You will be tested every day, beginning 24 hours after your last test. You will be discharged once you have two consecutive negative PCR test results with at least 24 hours between the two samples and no other COVID-19 symptoms.”

Nowhere does it specifically outline a three-to-five week quarantine. However, the players are being warned that is the worst-case scenario under Chinese law. And, no matter what the guidelines say, that government makes the rules and can adjust them at any time.

2. As things stand this Tuesday evening, it’s going to be each individual player’s choice about whether or not to go to China. That could change, but it’s where we are right now.

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To no one’s surprise, reaction is all over the place, but two very prominent Canadians made their nervousness quite clear. Connor McDavid referred to a potentially lengthy quarantine as “unsettling,” but declined to say if that meant he wouldn’t be going. “I’ve got four kids under the age of three-and-a-half,” added Vegas captain Alex Pietrangelo, already named to the Canadian team. “For me to be potentially locked up there for five weeks plus the Olympics, that’s a long time being away from my family.”

Pietrangelo said he expected to make his own decision “sooner than later.” (Team Canada is expected to be named around Jan. 12.) Sweden’s Robin Lehner already announced he won’t attend. Ryan McDonagh, a Team USA hopeful, said Tuesday morning “there’s no doubt in my mind” players want to go, but so many questions are unanswered.

I don’t speak to every player — not even close — but I do think right now that is the majority opinion. If the deadline to make a decision was tomorrow, it would be far more pessimistic, but there’s still time, as the NHL/NHLPA have until Jan. 10 to decline without financial penalty.

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3. What is the financial penalty? No one would give an exact amount, but it includes the costs of the private planes that would be sent to bring the Olympians from North America to China.

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4. One question I asked: what if, for argument’s sake, the Americans and Russians voted to go, while a good chunk of the Canadians and Swedes didn’t? Would we get NHLers from those first countries versus a mixed or non-NHL group from the latter two? Answer: Yes, that could happen.

5. At the Board of Governors, Commissioner Gary Bettman happily told everyone, “I plan on being here for a long time.” Sounds like a five-year agreement is being formalized, but if there are any curveballs involved with that — I’m not aware of them.

6. Arizona GM Bill Armstrong refused to comment when asked, but it now sounds like the Coyotes are gauging the market on Jakob Chychrun. I’ve heard the ask is massive, but that doesn’t mean opponents are running away. He’s signed for three more years at a very reasonable $4.6 million AAV and is a terrific player. This is one to watch.

7. Other than that, most teams are saying trade talks are “quiet.” Writing that never turns out poorly.

8. Believe Winnipeg needs the swelling on Blake Wheeler’s leg to go down before the Jets can determine the exact injury.

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9. Edmonton GM Ken Holland to Scott Oake on After Hours: “We score about 3.5 goals per game, we give up three. I think we have to find a way to get our goals-against down. It’s hard to score four every night… Certainly I want to be a buyer at the deadline, but we’ve got to win some hockey games. Standings will dictate my thinking.”

The Oilers have considered upgrades in goal (depending on Mike Smith’s health), left defence and third-line centre.

10. Jim Rutherford’s introduction to Vancouver clarified the timeline of Francesco Aquilini’s recent resume crawl. He reached out to Rutherford on the weekend of American Thanksgiving, visited him right after in Carolina and wished to finalize things the weekend of Dec. 3, only to be delayed by the new President’s non-COVID illness. On Dec. 4, the night of the ugly home-ice defeat to Boston, Aquilini phoned Bruce Boudreau while the latter was attending a Christmas Party in Hershey.

“He asked me if I was interested in opportunity to coach the Canucks, and I said absolutely,” Boudreau told Gord Stellick. “The next day, my agent phoned me…’Get your bags packed.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ And he goes, ‘You’re going to Vancouver if you want this.’ And he read me the deal, ‘Yeah, I’ll go right away.’”

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11. The thing we always forget about competitors is they always want to leave on a high. It’s very, very difficult to do so. Not everyone can walk away after a ninth Cup like Scotty Bowman. But that doesn’t mean they don’t try. Both Boudreau and Rutherford wanted another opportunity, and it’s an added bonus for them it came in Canada. Boudreau wanted one chance to coach here — “I don’t want to cower away from the limelight… I want to be the guy that’s on the hook,” he said — while there were times Rutherford and Toronto eyed each other during GM openings, but it never got close.

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Coaching/managing in Canada has high risks and high rewards. Those two see the rewards. Two Leaf fans saving Vancouver? What a story.

12. Another great line from Boudreau: he told Caroline Cameron, “I’m making so many spelling mistakes, (the players) must think I’ve got my Grade 3 and that’s it.”

13. A few of his contemporaries smiled at Rutherford saying he’ll observe for a month before assessing what he needs to do in Vancouver. “He’s been out a year, he can’t wait to get in on the action,” one exec said. He is working for permission on one AGM possibility and there are plenty of possibilities for GM. We mentioned Patrik Allvin last weekend. One source mentioned Mark Hunter. I turn all CHL questions to Jeff Marek, whose intel said no. But, another source mentioned he’d heard Hunter, too. So we’ll see.

14. Play along on this one and assume NHLers are going to the Olympics. Big stretch for Bo Horvat. I think he’s on the bubble.

15. If all continues to plan, it’s possible Jack Eichel heads to Vegas early in 2022. He remains in Charlotte, with rehab going well.

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16. Something has to be done about appeal timelines. No matter what you think about Jason Spezza’s suspension, his previously clean record should earn him a fair appeal. Unless Commissioner Bettman surprisingly drops him a game, it’s almost impossible to get to an independent arbitrator before the six games are up. That’s not right, especially for someone with no history.

17. Not hugely surprised Buffalo did not claim Anton Khudobin. The Sabres, if going for term (Khudobin has one more year), would prefer someone not as close to the end of their career. As game as Craig Anderson is, his health has spooked them a bit.

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18. Cale Makar is on-pace for 42 goals after scoring his 13th Tuesday night in a 4-2 win over the Rangers. NHL record for a defenceman is Paul Coffey, 48 in 1985-86.

19. Very, very curious to see how much the Sonny Milano/Trevor Zegras NFT sells for.

20. NHL coaching extensions so far this season: Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper (duh), Colorado’s Jared Bednar and Toronto’s Sheldon Keefe, who were both entering their final seasons. Also in their final season: Craig Berube (St. Louis, very competitive despite extremely difficult COVID/injury challenges); Dallas Eakins (Anaheim, first-place in the Pacific) and Dean Evason (Minnesota, first in the Central). Evason is going to get done. The other two sure are earning it, too.

21. Would offside reviews be any easier on everyone if the issue wasn’t possession inside the zone, but simply, “Do you touch the puck inside the zone?”

22. At the Board of Governors, Bettman said league financial projections indicated escrow money owed to owners by players could be paid off by the summer of 2024 — leading to a cap jump. It’s ambitious, and hopefully the Omicron wave doesn’t jeopardize that.

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23. Really enjoyed last week’s podcast interview with Elvis Merzlikins. The Columbus goalie was excellent on several topics. He has a reputation for dogged determination, demanding a level of excellence that might not be possible. (The great ones are often like this.) He told a great story about his first win as the Latvian National Team netminder, a victory that he says took him three years to get.

Basking in the celebration, Merzlikins took photos with fans and signed autographs while his mother, Sandra, observed.

“Why are you smiling? Who are you, a superstar?” Merzlikins said she asked him. “What, I win my first game, come on, be happy. The next morning, she brought me a gold medal with breakfast. I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Oh you’re a superstar, you finally won a freaking game.’” Tough crowd! “I’m thinking, ‘Mom, I played really great. I deserve it and I won my first game.’

“But my mom is my mom. I love her. That’s why I’m where I am. She (raised me) like this. I love that. Obviously, you need the compliments, and you need to feel it and understand, yeah you are doing a good job. But not too much. It’s better to feel that pressure, and it’s better to feel something where you did a mistake or something so you can get better.”

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24. Merzlikins’ road to the NHL certainly is unique. Eight years ago, he left Latvia for Switzerland, where Canadian goalie coach Michael Lawrence became a key mentor. Merzlikins actually started in hockey on defence.

“But I didn’t understand my role,” he said. “When they were shooting, I was catching the puck. When the (other) team was attacking, I was playing as a goalie. When I had the puck I was going as a forward. I was selfish, no passes, just going by myself.”

His coaches declared he’d switch positions and become a goalie. He had some experience at the position many of you will identify with. Merzlikins was often stuck in net by his older brother during soccer or roller hockey games. “I was always the goalie, they were hammering that ball. I remember I was in the nets with the tears, because it was painful… to catch those balls against my chest or my shoulders. But I got used to it.”

Merzlikins’ father, Vjaceslav, died when Elvis was young, and Sandra gets a wide berth because she got him on the right path. “We didn’t have a nice life (materially), she was all the time fighting to find some money to bring me to hockey.” He went to Switzerland without her at age 15, finding an excellent support system allowing him to thrive. From there comes Merzlikins’ determination, and he’s constantly demanding better from himself.

The day before we interviewed him (Dec. 6), the Blue Jackets beat San Jose 6-4, but he was annoyed at some of the goals he allowed. “I hate when there are tips, why can’t save the tip? Obviously, it is hard. At the same time, I have to give a hard time to myself because I want to be better. I want to catch them, I want to save them, but then realistically you think, ‘You don’t have that time always to save that thing. But I don’t care, find the time.’ This is how I talk to myself. Maybe it’s because I grow up like this. I saw (other goalies) who always had new pads, new helmets, new sticks… And seeing other boys, they ask, ‘Daddy, I want a new stick,’ daddy just goes there and buys him one, and my mom she couldn’t. I had one stick for three years. That’s how I played hockey. I think that’s what built my character and my swagger. It’s never going to be enough for me.”

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25. The list of NHL goalies who have scored in a game is Martin Brodeur (three times), Ron Hextall (twice), Billy Smith, Chris Osgood, Damian Rhodes, Jose Theodore, Evgeni Nabokov, Mika Noronen, Chris Mason, Cam Ward, Mike Smith and Pekka Rinne. We’ve heard Merzlikins is determined to join them. “Yes I will,” he said. “I will because I’m going to go for it. Even if I (get one), I’m not going to stop.”

26. Finally, discussed Matiss Kivlenieks, who tragically died last summer in a fireworks accident. “I play every single game for him,” the goalie said, before adding that when he plays badly “in my head, I say that was just me. I wasn’t playing for him, because I want to make (good games) for him.”

He still keeps in touch with Kivlenieks’ mother, Astrida, and sister, Madara. “His little sister became my little sister… I’m going to take care of her until my last day. She’s going to be in my life now. If she’s going to need help, she’s going to get it from me and my wife as well.”

Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins taking warmups while wearing Matiss Kivlenieks’ No. 80. (NHL/Twitter)



27. One anonymously-made suggestion if the NHLers can’t go to China: Why not play the Olympic tournament in the West Coast? For example, Seattle has one event scheduled at Climate Pledge Arena from Jan. 29-Feb. 24. (That’s a Seattle University basketball game on Feb. 10.) I know it’s a rush to put it together, and it’s not going to be the full Olympic experience, but what’s perfect right now? Build the game. Get the IOC to FedEx the medals. It’s better than not playing at all.

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28. Brandon Coe turned 20 on Dec. 1, and received a fantastic gift from the San Jose Sharks — who drafted him 98th in 2020. It was an NHL contract, very deserving for the OHL’s second-leading scorer, up in North Bay. Prior to being selected, he wrote an emotional piece for The Players’ Tribune, dedicating the honour to his father, Lance, who was diagnosed with cancer late in 2016.

“I’d see him after games and I could tell he wasn’t himself,” Coe wrote. “He was tired and there were bags under his eyes, but he was there. He was there. He was diagnosed before my OHL career started, and I think he’s only missed 30 games so far. That’s all the motivation I need to do an extra rep of anything.”

Following a brief remission, Lance Coe’s cancer returned and he passed away nine days after the Sharks picked Brandon. The NHL journey continues for him and his mother Heather, with Lance watching from above.

29. Sending some good luck Daemon Hunt’s way. The 2020 Minnesota pick, a defenceman at WHL Moose Jaw, is a fixture on the international scene for Team Canada. However, he caught COVID at last year’s World Junior camp, and was cut. This year, he injured his hand in a game against Canadian University players and can’t play. That’s a lot to handle, all the best.

30. John Gardner stood behind the bench for the first time at Avon Old Farms — a prep school in Connecticut — in 1975. He won game number 799 on March 4, 2019, 6-3 over Noble and Greenough School in a conference playoff quarterfinal. Win number 800 took more than 650 days, due to COVID, finally coming earlier this month. Among his NHL Alumni: Cam Atkinson, Nick Bonino, Christopher Higgins, Brian Leetch, Jonathan Quick and Trevor Zegras.

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31. Four out of seven Canadian teams (Edmonton, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver) have had jerseys thrown on the ice this season.

32. Years ago, we were at a restaurant with my son (very young at the time). He was tapping the window whenever anyone walked by. Some people ignored it, some smiled, some gave a quick wave. No big deal, he was having fun. One couple stopped and spent almost a minute waving back-and-forth to him, much to his delight. Was Mel and Marilyn Lastman. Made a young boy’s day.





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