Nearly two months after the NHL went dark because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Bruins last week finally announced plans to refund money, or offer credit toward the 2020-21 season, to fans holding tickets for the final six scheduled games at TD Garden (March 14 through April 4).
That was mighty good news. Fans, some with their wallets thin because of virus-related furloughs and job losses, had grown impatient, if not desperate. It may take a few weeks for the books to get settled on Causeway Street, but everyone who wants their dough will get it.
On a broader scale, the league has yet to make public how it intends to move forward, be it with the remainder of the regular season, the 2020 playoffs, or the start of 2020-21. The virus, and the absence of a vaccine to treat it, remains in control of an open-ended schedule.
As of Sunday, the league has been in mothballs for 60 days. If we were all living the standard NHL lifecycle with the Stanley Cup awarded on, say, June 15, we’ve now reached the equivalent of approximately Aug. 15 on the players’ rest-and-recovery timeline. Mid-August is when all hands eagerly anticipate the start of September training camp in a mere 3-4 weeks. Dandy. At the moment, no one’s got a clue when we’ll see hockey next.
Murmurings around the league late in the week indicated the NHL soon, quite possibly this coming week, will take at least the first big step and determine how to treat the remaining games of 2019-20, what amounts to roughly 15 percent of the regular-season schedule. It could bite the bullet and render the games lost (i.e. canceled), but it’s more likely the first step will be to announce that the games, if in fact ever played, will be held with no fans in the stands.
The first “tell” here in the Hub was the announcement regarding the Bruins’ refunds. Club owner Jeremy Jacobs, chairman of the NHL’s Board of Governors, didn’t decide to hand back money without guidance from the league.
With the decision to leave the stands empty, Step 2 is the final disposition of those regular-season games. Headed into the weekend, the league still was orchestrating plans to set up four large quarantine shops to play games at NHL rinks around North America — ideally two buildings in Canada and two more in the United States.
Originally, the working concept had all 31 teams reporting for duty and then playing out the schedule, each of the league’s four divisions staging games at the assigned arena. Each rink would hold three games a day over the course of three weeks, ultimately leaving all teams with their 82-game season completed. Voila.
And then, on to the playoffs, possibly with the same four rinks still employed for the first round or two of postseason play.
As the weekend approached, however, another rumored scenario had it that the league indeed would acquiesce and abandon the remainder of the regular season and head directly to the playoffs. Keeping in mind, of course, that any return-to-play scenario first would include upward of three weeks for a “preseason” training camp.
Given that it’s now Mother’s Day, the earliest we would see a real game would be the first week of June, some 90 days post-lockdown.
In the let’s-get-right-to-the-playoffs scenario — again, this is all spitballing — the postseason would open with 24 teams, rather than 16, chasing the Cup. The seven teams holding the worst records through games of March 11 would be finished for the season.
The clubs missing out, working from the bottom of the standings up: Detroit, Ottawa, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, New Jersey, and Buffalo.
The eight “added” playoff teams, those who were out of the playoff mix as of the morning of March 12: Islanders, Rangers, Panthers, and Canadiens in the East; Canucks, Wild, Coyotes, and Blackhawks in the West.
Make of all that what you will. For your faithful puck chronicler, it remains a Goose Gosselin-like stretch to the far post to think that a minimum 500 players could report for work, get in shape for three weeks, and then battle as many as 8-10 more weeks while in what would have to feel like a military-boot-camp situation. Oh, and avoid getting sick.
All of it, mind you, against the backdrop of some 78,000 COVID-19-related deaths in the US and another 4,500 in Canada as the weekend approached. It’s one great sport, hockey, but it’s not impervious to the reality that there’s a killer on the road and many players have sweet families at home to consider and protect.
Nonetheless, at league headquarters in New York, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the Zambonis stand ready to roll if there’s a clear path to return. It may sound like a dream to some of us, but for now, the business of hockey focuses on one thing: the business of hockey.
Garden workers to get relief
With ticket refunds and credits now being issued on Causeway Street, look for upward of 1,500 affected idled workers (a.k.a. associates) at TD Garden to start drawing down any day now from the $1.5 million pot that Bruins ownership finally agreed to set aside in the weeks following the start of the lockdown.
Three separate groups of associates will receive checks from Delaware North, including the concessionaires (Sportservice), as well as employees of the Garden and the Bruins.
The hot dog-and-beverage folks make up nearly two-thirds of the 1,500 associates, with the remaining positions spread across the Garden and Bruins, that latter group with the fewest drawing from the relief package.
If all 1,500 workers drew evenly from the pot, it would work out to roughly $1,000 per employee. It’s expected, however, that everyone will receive a reduced base payment, while select others are awarded substantially more, based on such factors as length of service and number of events worked.
As noted here weeks ago, not all event-related workers will be compensated. Specifically, security and cleaning employees will be excluded because they work for companies not owned by Delaware North.
Security guards and cleaners can seek recourse, if any, with their companies, which have contracted with Delaware North as vendors.
PARADE OF STARS
Boston went Cup crazy
Late morning on May 11, 1970, Bobby Orr stopped at the Garden before heading across town to join his teammates for the joyous Cup parade that would snake its way down Washington Street for the grand finale at City Hall.
The convertible carrying Orr, by the way, also included teammates John Adams, Don Marcotte, and Billy Speer.
Prior to the parade, Orr that morning on Causeway Street was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. Teammates Phil Esposito, John Bucyk, and Gerry Cheevers were in contention, but Orr’s “Flying Bobby” Cup-winner 40 seconds into overtime of Game 4 sealed the Smythe.
The MVP award, which came with $1,500 cash, lifted Orr’s trophy earnings to $6,500 for the season, and completed the only trophy grand slam in league history, a feat that has not been repeated 50 years later. He also received the Hart Trophy as league MVP, the Norris Trophy as the game’s top defenseman, and the Ross Trophy as the season’s leading scorer (33-87—120).
Today, the same four-trophy motherlode would bring the recipient $1 million — $250,000 per trophy. If you are doing the math at home, that’s 154 times as much as Orr pocketed.
The handsome Orr, 22 and single, shared an apartment in those days with trainer Frosty Forristall. A constant array of young women in the crowd of 100,000-plus jumped into Orr’s car. The lead photo in the May 12 morning Globe captured a seemingly startled Orr getting a huge hug from one of the female admirers who scrambled into the car.
Diane White, who later became one of the Globe’s most popular columnists, filed the May 12 news report on all the doings, including Johnny “Pie” McKenzie pouring a pitcher of beer over the head of Mayor Kevin White.
“They touched them as their cars inched along Stuart and Washington Streets,” she wrote. “They grabbed at them and kissed them and tore off pieces of their clothing for souvenirs.”
Orr, wrote White, smiled upon occasion, but was for the most part subdued, to the point of looking scared.
“Most of the Bruins,” added White, “looked a little frightened by the enthusiastic but sometimes out-of-control crowd. A few of them looked frightened by the fact it was the morning after.”
Time to try something new?
One of the NHL’s major incentives to get the game back on the ice, ideally at the four designated arenas, is to provide programming for its TV rights-holders, including NBC and NBC Sports Network here in the United States.
The longer people must sit home during the pandemic, the greater their appetite for live sports programming. The league very much would like to feed a starved audience and perhaps pick up new viewers for the Original 31.
As Bruins president Cam Neely pointed out during his recent virtual town hall meeting with season ticket-holders, empty arenas would provide the NHL and its TV partners the ability to try some new broadcast twists to present the game.
Specifically, the absence of fans in the stands would allow cameras to be mounted just a few rows off the ice in the lower-bowl seats, and perhaps along the top of the glass that surrounds the boards. In both cases, cameras in those locations typically would obstruct fan view.
Even closer to the action, league broadcast executives also have toyed with the idea of embedding cameras directly into the boards, or perhaps mounting them directly behind the boards with lenses shooting the action through small portals drilled into the boards.
The famous picture of Bobby Orr potting the OT winner in the 1970 Cup Final had Record American photographer Ray Lussier shooting in a corner at the west end of the building, his lens peeking out through holes drilled into the plexiglass specifically for the use of news photographers. Most NHL arenas today still employ the method of placing holes in the glass to facilitate cameras.
Another option, one that would necessitate the rank and file to sign off, would be to have small Go-Pro-like cameras attached to the players’ helmets. The players have worn cameras during recent All-Star events and some of the shots have been dynamic, particularly in conveying the speed and force of the game.
Westfall had Orr covered
Bruins winger Eddie Westfall, on the ice May 10 for Orr’s game-winner, will turn 80 in September and still regularly pilots his six-passenger plane around the country from his “home” airports in southern Florida and Long Island.
“Just not right now,” explained steady Eddie, reached the other day at his winter home near Naples, Fla. “It’s in for a heart transplant — new engine. A couple of weak cylinders.”
Harry Sinden, coach of the ’70 squad, made a point during his conference call this past week that the reliable Westfall dutifully covered the right point as Orr pinched down to combine on the winner with Derek Sanderson — thus refuting the long-held narrative that Orr’s gamble left the Bruins vulnerable to a breakout.
“I always remind Orr,” said the ever-gregarious Westfall, “ ’Hey, Bobby, if it wasn’t for guys like me protecting your ass all the time, you wouldn’t have had the chance to run the net.’”
All meant in good humor. But it’s worth remembering, Sinden not only prompted Orr to attack, he coached his forwards and his other back liners to adapt their game and actions around Orr’s forays. Sounds basic, right? If only we saw more cohesive brilliance in today’s game.
Hockey is best when the five-man unit plays, well, like a unit — on both defense and offense, the individual and intricate parts meshing in harmony.
Coaches at all levels have lost that mind-set over the decades, driven by the belief that it’s better (read: easier) to get everyone to play the same way. Players are afraid to play outside the box, and therefore stop thinking outside the box, a mind-set established from the time they first strap in the blades as mites.
Orr was an artist, the singular greatest force the game had ever seen to that point. His play was a Michelangeloian blend of skill, instinct, creativity, courage, and intelligence.
We have yet to see another Orr. Maybe there won’t be another. But we are left to wonder, how many brilliant little candidates have walked into rinks around the world over the last 50 years and been told to shape their games around the safest, least imaginable game plan?
Hockey a thinking man’s game. At least until the man is told there’s no room for think in the rink.
The NHL’s Board of Governors met last Monday to chew over the idea of still staging its amateur entry draft in June, despite the fact that it earlier announced it scrapped the draft scheduled for June 26-27 in Montreal. Expect to hear more about it in the coming week and expect the league to push hard for owners and managers to OK it to be held as a virtual event — similar to the recent NFL Draft. Ideal? No. One bugaboo, just for an example, would be how to resolve conditional trades that are contingent on how teams finish in the playoffs. At this point, it’s quite possible the playoffs won’t even have started in June. More debate necessary, but it’s likely held in June . . . Provided the league remains committed to restarting play in June or July, there is no way free agency can keep its standard July 1 start. Ditto for the annual two-week June buyout that normally triggers two weeks prior to the start of UFA . . . Bruce Cassidy, the best Boston bench boss since Sinden, was about to turn 5 years old when Orr potted the big goal. “It may have been on television,’ recalled Cassidy, who grew up in Ottawa and became a huge Bruins fan. “So I could have seen it, but I don’t recall watching it or what I was doing at the time.” Cassidy did clip the picture of Flying Bobby out of the Ottawa Journal and stick it on his bedroom wall, and had it there for years . . . Your faithful puck chronicler asked Orr this past week if he had any pictures of his hockey heroes hanging on his walls as a kid growing up in Ontario. “I am sorry to say this, but I was a Toronto Maple Leaf fan,” he said. “We lived in a small town, Parry Sound, and every Saturday night I would go with my grandpa Orr and watch the Maple Leafs play. I was a Tim Horton and Allan Stanley [fan], you know, defensemen. I was a big fan of theirs.” The Leafs last won the Cup in the spring of ’67, the end of Orr’s rookie year. How different the landscape of the NHL, and the fortunes of the Leafs, would have been if the Leafs, and not the Bruins, been the first to sponsor Parry Sound and thus claim playing rights to Orr in 1962.