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32 Thoughts: Where will the reeling Canucks go from here?

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• Sports organizations are changing what they search for in front office hires
• The ramifications of a possible Pittsburgh Penguins sale
• How the NHL is dealing with positive COVID tests

Let’s start with Vancouver.

This is what I think is going on: When you start a season, you try to prepare yourself for all outcomes.

A. “We could be good”
B. “We’re going to battle for the playoffs”
C. “We know we’re going to be bad, but we’re going to make the best of it”
D. “Oh God, I hope we avoid a worst-case scenario. I’m going to pray to my deity this will happen to someone else.”

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For the Canucks, unfortunately it’s “D.”

Organizationally, the franchise is reeling from top-to-bottom. They were expected to contend in the unpredictable Pacific. Instead, they are seventh, six points out of a playoff spot, returning from an 0-3 road trip where they were outscored 19-6. Ownership met Monday, and Francesco Aquilini met Tuesday afternoon with GM Jim Benning. A change at the position was not expected, and that didn’t occur.

The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. Under Aquilini ownership, a top-level management change isn’t made without a ready replacement. Dave Nonis to Mike Gillis. Gillis to Trevor Linden. The Canucks haven’t had an in-season coaching change since Marc Crawford replaced Mike Keenan during the 1999 All-Star Weekend.

I don’t sense any kind of management/coaching search from the organization over the last few weeks. Benning/Travis Green was to be their combo for the next two seasons. Absolutely, that could change and no one can feel safe. You can sense uncertainty throughout the organization from four provinces away.

I periodically spar with Vancouver’s extremely passionate online fanbase, but you can’t blame them now (I’ve seen all of your hot dog-costume memes in reply to the report of the meeting). Everyone is scrambling; this was supposed to be a breakthrough year.

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Several of our Vancouver-based Sportsnet compatriots — with a much better grasp of market dynamics than mine — are saying they believe fan reaction during Wednesday’s return versus Colorado could determine course of action. That’s insane. Certainly, a cratering of ticket sales affects change, but to base moves on one night’s festivities is awful process and doomed to fail.

The ownership meetings on Monday were very much about, “Ok, we didn’t expect this. If it doesn’t change, we’re going to have to do something. What’s that going to be?” In the short term, more than the GM or the coach, it’s going to be about fixing on-ice. Part of that is practical, part of that is a desire to inform the players that they have to share in the blame. There are several problems to address, but no greater mystery than what has happened to Elias Pettersson.

According to our daily Sportlogiq report, Pettersson is tied for sixth in the league in cycle chances with 28. Other than that, he’s a stunning non-factor. Two seasons ago, he had 24 goals from the slot in 68 games. In 2021-22, he’s got 0 in 16. He’s simply too good for that. It’s never solely on one player, but his descent from the usual eliteness torpedoes Vancouver’s attack.

The Canucks have been working for some time to build up his play and confidence, but there are no answers so far. I’m not in their room, but that sounds like the largest frustration point among the team — adding to the tension in the room, on the bench, on the ice and throughout the organization. They are thinking about trades, but this is the time vultures circle and you’re thrown anvils instead of life preservers.

You work in an office environment long enough, you know when things are nearing DEFCON 1. They’re not there — yet — in Vancouver. But the events of the last 48 hours mean we’re headed down that road if things don’t get better.

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32 THOUGHTS

1. If the Canucks do eventually consider any changes, it comes at a time when organizations are extremely nervous about the challenges of properly vetting candidates for current/future openings — and consequences for failing to do so. Anaheim and Chicago absolutely cannot afford mistakes. The league office holds major influence in these decisions, and I’m not sure that’s going to change much. But I can see more and more teams turning to outside entities in search of fresh perspectives, or to make sure they aren’t missing anything. It’s extremely common outside the NHL, and inevitable within.

One influential name many of us wouldn’t know is Mike Forde, executive chairman of Sportsology, billed as bringing “a wealth of strategic, performance, creative and technical expertise to help your organization realize its full potential.” Last April, The Ringer’s Yaron Weitzman billed him “The NBA’s GM Kingmaker.” A former Premier League executive with Bolton and Chelsea, he created his current business at the start of 2014. It has a worldwide reach among several different sports. New Jersey’s parent owners, Harris Blitzer Sports and Entertainment, is one client, which meant Forde had a role in the process that led to Tom Fitzgerald being promoted to full-time manager. Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis used Forde to oversee the NBA Wizards’ GM search in 2019. “Mike was recommended to me by (NBA Commissioner) Adam Silver,” Leonsis said via email. Forde taught him “not to be bound by doing the same old things in the same old ways. We took our time to build a leadership group with complementing talents and skills. Traditionally, front-office searches look for the ‘one great person,’ and I approached the process thinking about how to bring together great people around ‘one big goal’ of winning a championship.”

Interestingly, both of those situations resulted in promotions for internal candidates, Fitzgerald with the Devils and Tommy Sheppard with the Wizards. “Everyone says, ‘Well, that was a long process to get someone who was in the building,’” Forde said on this week’s podcast. “Actually it was a great process because (Leonsis) could say, ‘I looked around, I spoke to multiple people, I saw where the market was, I saw what our needs were, and hired two or three different people around (Sheppard), built a braintrust that hopefully now is going to take him in year three to great success.’ That’s the silhouette of the future for me and it starts with the curiosity of the owner.” That’s the thing that intrigued me most about Forde’s work. It’s not simply “We have to get rid of the old,” because that doesn’t always make sense and, in the media business in particular, it’s led to terrible mismanagement. It’s “we have to find the new and merge it with the old that still works.” It’s early, but the Wizards currently lead the NBA’s Eastern Conference and the Devils, who are fun to watch, show real signs of progress. That Dawson Mercer looks terrific.

2. Forde isn’t crazy about Sportsology being called a “search firm.” If anything, what he wants to do is ask owners to slow down the process when they search for someone new. He says that, for example, the average coaching/GM search in the NFL lasts 17 days. “(What we do is) less about coming with the latest piece of wearable tech or face-recognition technology, it’s about suspending judgement,” he says. “And in 17 days it’s pretty impossible to suspend judgement, do a deep dive to learn best-practices, next-practices etc., and then come out the other side. So what happens is people go, ‘I want to move past x individual, I think I’m going to take some time,’ and they get pushed into the next thing which is to go to a Super-Bowl winning program, find a number two and hope by osmosis that creates success.” His experience is “you have more time than you think.”

3. “The first thing is, can you just allow the owners to take a deep breath?” Forde adds. “To not listen to the media, not listen to agents, not listen to other executives, to say you have to hire someone in three days.” The Wizards took four months “just to understand what the future could look like before (Leonsis) decided on the front office. Not everyone has the luxury of that time, but they certainly have (some) time. We’ll encourage ownership groups: stop, stand still. Don’t think there’s a unicorn at the end of this, one person who’s going to run it to change the future of the franchise. It’s probably going to be built around several people in a braintrust. We go through different phases of transformation. It might be re-imagining strategy, re-imagining the front office, re-imagining the type of people that could work for that franchise, re-imagining a target operating model or different processes, it could be re-imagining anything that could do with data or technology.”

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I loved his take on five-year plans. “In our experience, that is four years of trying things and then in the fifth year, you throw a lot of things at the wall and see if it sticks. Right? The challenge of an owner is, when they hear that — and an owner said it to me in a different sport last year — I’ve had two of these guys before, now I’m eight years in and I’m still where I was on day one. So how can your business plan as a GM fit the needs of the business, not this sort-of utopia four or five years from now?” He also says head count has zero correlation to winning, and refreshingly, has little time for the analytics vs. eye-test debate, because he doesn’t think either is the most important skill. “The people who do this job successfully year-after-year…their ability to communicate up and down a vertical is non-negotiable.” MLB Oakland’s Billy Beane, immortalized by Brad Pitt in Moneyball, had the gift of being able to translate the information he considered valuable to the people who needed to understand it.

4. Earlier this week, the NHL’s Executive Inclusion Council commissioned a voluntary demographic study of the league-wide workforce in order to gain a better understanding “and appreciation” of who works in the business. In addition to diversity of people, there’s also diversity of thought and experience. When I first joined Hockey Night in Canada and watched practice with the Garry Galleys, the Glenn Healys, the Kelly Hrudeys, the Greg Millens and the Craig Simpsons, that’s where I realized how little I knew. How much there was still to learn. To intuitively “see” things that happened. It’s really important to look for fresh blood, but I still think about making a critical decision for a hockey team without that intuition.

“Let’s qualify this,” Forde says. “Do I think there’s a baseball president who could run an NBA team at a leadership level? Yeah I do, absolutely I do. Do I think there’s a leading NFL person who could add value at a leadership level in European soccer? Absolutely, because I think 80 per cent of the mechanics of the job are very similar. You’re building teams, you’re hiring people, you’re managing a process, you’re managing the owners, you’re managing the media, there’s a lot of similarities. Now, there are thunderbolt moments in every calendar year of each sport where you are required to have knowledge that creates a competitive advantage. But I do believe that building this commitment to (intellectual) diversity into the management is really important. If we have 10 people, do we want the top four ranked people to be from outside the sport? Probably a bridge too far…But the challenge is this bias, which is unless you know and have put the time in and grinded around the league — you can’t have value. And that is not true in our experience. Because we have seen people move between sports, come from outside of sports and come in and add huge value…Six or seven years ago, the NBA was very linear in its thinking about where it could get a competitive advantage. It was, ‘Go to the next generation of people who had been trained in the some way as the last generation, and ask them to do the future job better.’ Which really produces the same results.”

Last summer, the Dallas Mavericks hired Nico Harrison as their GM. Prior to that, he was at Nike for 19 years. “I don’t think we as a business could have recommended that three or four years ago,” Forde said. The next generation of owners are “coming into this world asking different questions, expecting different answers. They are prepared to challenge the status quo.”

5. The Pittsburgh sale has ramifications around the league. I’m very curious to see if it gets to $900M. That would be a big number. No one has ever confirmed it, but there were rumours a couple of years ago that previous sale attempts fell through because the NHL said nothing less than $750M. That was before the new US TV deals and should the Penguins get to $900M, you have to wonder if we could see more sales. Fenway Sports Group wasn’t the only bidder, so there’s interest. Also curious to see if Fenway sees the Penguins as the final piece of the puzzle with their other properties — the MLB Red Sox, Premier League Liverpool — to create their own streaming platform.

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6. It looked weird to see Detroit’s Dylan Larkin pulled mid-game due to COVID protocol on Tuesday night. But, unfortunately, it happens. Most famous was Justin Turner during Game 6 of the 2020 World Series, before he controversially returned to the field during the Dodgers’ celebration. Tomas Nosek (then with Vegas) was pulled during a game last February. The reason Ottawa was temporarily shut down — as opposed to other COVID situations — is that enhanced protocols, such as testing every day as opposed to every three days, were not slowing the spread. That’s why doctors made the call; the virus could not be contained.

7. The number of false positives had players and teams very frustrated, but doctors fought hard against cutting the amount of testing. They argued it is still the best preventative measure against cancelling games or withdrawing from the Olympics. Additions to the protocols included an expedited procedure to confirm a false positive; recommending increased use of MESA point-of-care tests because of their increased accuracy (that’s in the United States for now, with “similar options being explored for the Canadian clubs); and point-of-care tests to be administered pre-game when teams have multiple positives.

The league continues to resist salary-cap exemptions for teams who are forced to play shorthanded or are in extremely tight spots because of positive cases. One of my suggestions (not that they’re going to listen) is to treat it like a bonus overage, meaning it could come off a team’s cap next season if there’s no room now. St. Louis asked for that possibility because Scott Perunovich’s bonuses meant there wasn’t room to call him up from AHL Springfield until Monday. The 2020 Hobey Baker winner was lighting up that league, but had to wait longer than anyone wanted to get his NHL reward.

8. Teams are starting to ask players who received the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine to consider a booster. Before the season, the idea of a booster was a real hot-button topic. Clubs were concerned a good chunk of players would say no. I think that’s softened, but we will see where it goes. On the Olympics, I don’t see three postponed games as threatening NHL participation in Beijing. If this continues to happen, that’s when you’ve got reason to worry. A positive COVID case in China means a three-week quarantine. That would dissuade me more than making up games. The NHL long lists are 55 names per country (56 for Canada with Carey Price’s special status), but someone was saying that there are 150 names for some countries when you consider the possibilities if the NHLers don’t go.

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9. I think Montreal would consider adding a puck-moving defender.

10. Boston remains Tuukka Rask’s top priority, but the timeline for a return isn’t set.

11. Andrew Brunette’s going to get a long runway in Florida.

12. This year’s Russian free agent to watch is right-shot winger Andrei Kuzmenko. Sixth in KHL scoring (28 points in 25 games) for perennial power St. Petersburg. Never drafted, he will be 26 in February. There’s a lot of interest.

13. New IOC president Luc Tardif said Tuesday that the decision on whether China’s men’s hockey team competes in the Olympics will be made Nov. 25. If removed, Norway would be the replacement, as the highest-ranked nation not currently in the field.

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14. There are approximately seven teams who have indicated interest in being the next “Amazon team” should the prime service wish to produce another series. Some organizations have said it is not for them, but seven would be a promising number. As long as it doesn’t interfere with production of more Yellowstone episodes, I’m all in favour.

15. When it comes to Connor McDavid and John Tortorella, I completely disagree with Tortorella’s position on the issue (more on McDavid in a moment). What’s frustrating, however, is the way in which strong opinions are so voraciously shouted down in hockey. The greatest studio show in sports television history is Inside the NBA. If Tortorella said what he said on that show, everyone would laugh. Even if they ripped him, it would be in a fun way.

16. As for McDavid, there’s a concern about in-arena attendance — and not just in hockey. I don’t think we really understand yet where this is going, but it’s clear that fans are not returning in-person at the anticipated level. During the 2005-06 lockout, the NHL took a long look at its on-ice product, a move that wasn’t universally praised at the time, but history judges very favourably. I’ve said it many times, I think McDavid deserves many, many more calls against him than he gets. He’s a mugging victim every night. The question I’d be asking if I was the NHL is this: if we want to get more people into the building, are we going to have to give our fans reason to believe star talents will be given more of an opportunity to succeed? I know it’s sacrilege, but if I was concerned about the business, I’d be making sure this was a talking point.

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17. The best line so far about attendance? Someone pointed out to me that the NHL has already surpassed last year’s numbers, and did so on Oct. 22. I thought that was really funny.

18. During last Saturday’s Hockey Night in Canada, Craig MacTavish said that if Toronto hadn’t taken Joseph Woll, the Oilers were going to. The Maple Leafs took him 62nd overall. Edmonton was next. Woll won his first NHL game that night.

19. That was a great scene, especially for Woll’s family — but the best thing this week was seeing Kevin Hayes return and score.

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20. There are some interviews from a few weeks ago I updated and wanted to include. The first was with interim Chicago GM Kyle Davidson. I was struck by Davidson’s confidence during his introductory media conference. Normally, interim hirings step gently, tiptoeing into the news cycle. Not Davidson, and I wondered if he believed he might permanently keep the job.

“Nothing I’ve been told is to that extent,” he replied. “I have been granted full autonomy, authority and confidence from Danny and Rocky (Wirtz). I do have the internal belief that I have what it takes to take over (during such a difficult time). That’s the approach I’ve taken personally. I’m going to do the job as if it is mine. If I didn’t, I’d be doing a disservice to our team and organization. I’m going to learn what needs to be learned, and in good time, do what needs to be acted upon. Trust your gut, trust your instincts, believe in yourself.” Have you always had that self-confidence? “Developing the experience to share my opinion and make my stances known happened over time. (When I arrived in) Nov. 2010, it was all about learning and finding my way. Where can I be most useful? You grow in confidence as you gain insight. There’s a point you feel you come into your own. But you don’t know how big a role you can play until time comes. I feel comfortable with where I’m at, that I can execute.”

21. Davidson did not want to discuss what changes we will see in the organization in the aftermath of the Kyle Beach investigation. “That’s something I will leave to ownership and that leadership group,” he answered. “Those changes will be rolled out in a formal setting; specific announcements of the steps being taken.” As for how he leads during this time, Davidson replied, “We are still processing what happened. It’s not something that goes away in days or weeks. You have to give people their space. But we are in the middle of a season, so other people in the organization are working on the fallout and repercussions — while I will be dealing with the roster and what is going on on the ice.”

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22. Okay, the roster. Dylan Strome scored his first goal of the season in the Blackhawks’ last game, a 2-1 victory over Arizona. He played five of 12 games under Jeremy Colliton, averaging 13:37. He’s played all three under Derek King, averaging 11:17 (a double-minor against the Coyotes kept him to 8:51 that game). In prior trade talks, they were looking for a prospect or a draft pick in exchange. At some point, there will have to be a Marc-Andre Fleury decision. “It’s hard to describe where anyone is, because we’ve given them a blank slate — completely wiped away,” Davidson said. “Let Derek King find his way. It’s way too premature to draw conclusions with any one player. In the near term, and maybe over several months, too, I really want to evaluate on and off the ice. The future environment off-ice extremely is important to me, it’s integral to the success we eventually have. You don’t fully grasp what you have until you are there and get information. I have to figure out what I believe is the best from that knowledge.

23. On Connor Ingram’s right arm is a tattoo of a cross and a ring. On Oct. 24, as he made his NHL debut in Minnesota, his father, Brent, and mother, Joni, tried to contain their emotions 600 kilometres away in Imperial, SK. Brent wears a necklace with the cross depicted on Ingram’s tattoo. Joni wears the ring. The tattoo reads: “Never Alone.” Ten months ago, Connor Ingram felt very differently. Last January, while the Predators were having a rough weekend on-ice in Dallas, losing 7-0 and 3-2 to the Stars, Ingram, the team’s taxi-squad goalie behind Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros, was having a terrible time off of it. He missed the team bus to go to the rink, showing up 10 minutes later than everyone else. Upon arrival, Ingram went right to goalie coach Ben Vanderklok. “(Ben) asked, ‘What’s going on?’ I told him, ‘I can’t do this.’ I didn’t want to play hockey. After listening to me, he said, ‘Let’s get you on a plane, there’s a program for this, something in place to help.’”

24. Ingram was consumed by Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, but didn’t realize it at the time. “This is the kind of OCD you do not hear about,” he said. “You hear about repeatedly washing hands or being incredibly organized. My apartment is a disaster, I’m not one of those people. Mine was different. I had a compulsion with sexually-transmitted diseases. I’ve never had one, but I’d spend countless hours researching wikipedia. I had 10 blood tests within a year…I was in a fully-committed relationship so it wasn’t possible for me to have one, but when you’re in a relationship, it is very hard to explain.”

On Jan. 24, Ingram voluntarily entered the NHL/NHLPA Player Assistance Program. He spent 40 days there. “I’d never heard of anyone out there in the world going through what I was. I explained everything to a therapist. She said, ‘You have OCD, that’s what this is.’” It was like a thunderbolt hit him. “It was nice to put on a label, to know what it is. Now I know there’s a reason for what I’m going through. The world works in mysterious ways — there was another person in Malibu with me…to have that person sit across from me and tell me their story, it was amazing. I was in tears, because I’m not the only one. People need to talk about it. What I went through is something a lot of people go through. As a man, we don’t talk mental health a lot. I want people to know they shouldn’t be scared to talk about it, because there’s someone out there who understands. There’s someone out there who is going through the same thing.”

25. Ingram credits Predators assistant GM and director of hockey operations Brian Poile for staying with him in his Dallas hotel room that January day where the goalie asked for help. As travel details were being finalized, Poile made sure to keep Ingram company. “I remember that morning Connor being vulnerable and coming to us genuinely asking for help, and our entire team — players and staff being there to embrace him,” Poile said. What did you say? “The details of that time with Connor is his story to share. At that moment, I simply wanted to give Connor compassion, let him know we sincerely cared about him as a person, and we were there to help him and his family any way we could. In professional sports, we sometimes forget these are young men, some of them not fully developed physically or mentally. In many cases, they leave their homes and families in their prime development years to chase their NHL dreams. These young men devote the majority of their days and years to hockey, and in some cases at a significant compromise to the other areas of their life, to become exceptional at the game they love. The Predators are truly a family and we care deeply about our players. We are actively making efforts to commit people and resources, to help our players with their mental health, both for their on-ice performance and more importantly to help them better navigate life off the ice.”

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At the start of the program, Ingram was not allowed to communicate with anyone. FaceTime with his parents began about a week in, and “you could see a change in Connor,” Brent Ingram said. “We are so proud of him. You’ve got to give that kid credit, at 23, to realize that things weren’t quite right. He’s definitely more positive about things. He’s happier, regained his passion, enjoying everything more than he did before.” Ingram re-joined the AHL’s Chicago Wolves last April, playing five games before injury. The numbers weren’t great (3.48 goals against, .899 save percentage), but the attitude was much improved.

He didn’t have a great reputation for staying in shape, and there were rumours about alcohol consumption. When Ingram played in Sweden at the start of the 2020-21 season, he missed a flight home because he’d been out partying with teammates the night before. “(Alcohol) definitely became a coping mechanism, but I’m not a person who would wake up and make a screwdriver to get myself straight, nothing like that,” he said. “But one thing about OCD is you do things to completion, so instead of one or two drinks, I’d have 10. Drinking is one of the things pointing me in the direction of things are not right, I’m losing control.” Ingram went back to Imperial for his brother’s wedding, then returned to Nashville in July. He’d usually stay in Saskatchewan until the annual Roughriders/Winnipeg Blue Bombers CFL Labour Day game. Not this time. “I re-assessed everything. Who I was, how I approach things,” he said.

26. He also credited teammate Mark Borowiecki, very open about his own mental health challenges, for helping him navigate things. In the air on a flight from Winnipeg to Minnesota on Oct. 23, Ingram was notified he’d be making his NHL debut the next night against the 4-0 Wild. “I didn’t really have time to get nervous to be honest,” he laughed. “That was the best thing about it.” The difficulties of border-crossing during COVID made it impossible for Brent and Joni to attend, unfortunately. But you can imagine the pride they felt as their son stopped 33 shots in a 5-2 win. “(Joni) was famous (at WHL) Kamloops,” Brent Ingram laughed. “You could never find her, she’d be wandering around, needed to be by herself. The joke was she made as many saves as Connor did during the game, so was dangerous to sit next to. But if Connor was strong enough after all he’s been through to enjoy the moment and relish the game, she could do it too. We’re so proud of him. He’s got a saying, ‘It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re going.’”

27. Ingram is currently at AHL Milwaukee, and I’m looking forward to seeing him back in the NHL. “I’m never quick to judge people. You don’t know what they are going through. They could be having a bad day. I guarantee somewhere there’s someone going through the same things you are. No one should go through it alone, there’s always someone willing to listen and relate to you. I know it’s hard to ask for help, but that stigma is going away. People have to know there is no shame in asking for a hand.”

28. A few final Jack Eichel notes: he visited Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon last summer in Nova Scotia; was really impressed how the community respected their space. At the Sabres’ last Christmas party, his gift (from Victor Olofsson) was a photo of Daniel Stern from Home Alone with the name “Eichel” atop it. That’s Eichel’s favourite movie, which makes it even funnier. Finally, one executive pointed out Eichel’s salary goes up almost $3.5M with the tax difference between New York State and Nevada.

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29. Atop my Hall of Fame “need to get in” list are Daniel Alfredsson and Rod Brind’Amour. The Sedins should be shoo-ins next November.

30. One fun thing about this season is the return of the “Nov. 1 Stat.” Many in the sport count American Thanksgiving as the true test of who will compete for the playoffs and who won’t. The loser point makes that too late, for me. You fall behind early, it’s waaaaaaay too hard to catch up. From 2005-06 until 2018-19, just nine of 59 teams who were at least four points out after games on Nov. 1 came back to make the playoffs. This year, that challenge falls to Arizona, Chicago and Montreal. (In COVID-shortened 2019-20, eight teams were below that line: Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New Jersey, Minnesota, the Rangers, Ottawa and San Jose. The Red Wings, Kings, Devils, Senators and Sharks weren’t going to make it. The Blackhawks were hanging by a thread, while the Rangers and Wild climbed into the race. No guarantees, but maybe two of them.)

31. NHL job opportunities: Philadelphia (link) and Boston (link).

32. Angelo Mosca wrestling at Maple Leaf Gardens was a regular event of my formative existence. I saw him beat Sgt. Slaughter for the Canadian title, battle Ivan Koloff in Russian chain matches and, if my memory isn’t failing me, he headlined the last card there before the WWE took over the market — a six-man tag with Buzz Sawyer and Jimmy Valiant against The Assassin, Paul Jones and Kamala. Years later, I was covering a CFL Hamilton-Toronto game in Hamilton, and someone was loudly cheering for the Tiger-Cats in the press box. But no one was going to tell Mosca to be quiet. RIP to a legend.

Note: A few of you reached out to ask if the blog is ending. No, that’s not the case. I appreciate your interest, don’t like how it’s been a month, and will commit to getting it back on a weekly basis.

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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.

Stream over 1,000 games blackout-free, including the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with a subscription to SN NOW PREMIUM.

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.

[radioclip id=5257327]

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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