The NHL and its players continued over the weekend to hash over the details aimed at getting all 31 teams back on the ice. A tentative agreement struck on Friday could have seven of the clubs, those that did not qualify for the summer playoffs, skating in official practices as of Dec. 28.
Meanwhile, the hockey market around the globe remains a world full of fits, starts, delays, and in some cases a decision to scrub the 2020-21 season outright, including a sizable number of clubs in the East Coast Hockey League.
“It is, at best, to be described as a unique period,” said John Ferguson Jr., reached by telephone. “We’re doing all we can to make the best of the challenge.”
Ferguson, general manager of the Bruins’ AHL Providence affiliate, and Bruins GM Don Sweeney’s righthand man, has been busy jockeying Boston’s playing assets to teams around North America and Europe. The working target for the opening of Bruins camp in Brighton is the first week of January, which had blue line prospects Jakub Zboril and Nick Wolff packing up from their teams in Europe in recent days and heading to the United States.
Zboril, playing in the Czech League (Brno), and Wolff, assigned to Miskolci in the Slovak League, will be mixed into the Black and Gold varsity when camp opens (target: Jan. 3). The tentative start date for NHL regular-season play remains Jan. 13. Keep in mind, all dates are, shall we say, shaky.
According to Ferguson, ex-Maine goalie Jeremy Swayman already is here, in part because it didn’t make sense for him to leave his home in Alaska to join fellow goalie prospect Kyle Keyser in Jacksonville, Fla., and then be subject to another round of COVID-19-related health protocols upon making his way to the Hub of Hockey.
It remains a possibility, noted Ferguson, that Swayman could see action with ECHL Jacksonville (where Keyser made his debut last weekend) once varsity camp breaks and the season begins — with Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak inked in as the Bruins goaltenders.
“It may occur then that there’s a situation he can go down to Jacksonville and get games,” said Ferguson. “It’s a thought we’ve had on the table.”
Meanwhile, with the AHL to remain dormant through at least Feb. 5, Jacksonville has become the interim home to the most Boston talent. Keyser was joined there in recent days by another Boston netminding prospect, Callum Booth (a former Hurricanes draft pick). Three other Boston prospects, including fresh faces Matt Filipe (Northeastern), Jack Ahcan (St. Cloud State), and Andrew Peski (North Dakota) made their way to Jacksonville in recent days, said Ferguson, and can be worked into the Icemen’s lineup.
Meanwhile, Jamie Langenbrunner, the club’s director of player development, has seen first-hand the disruption COVID-19 has caused in the North American amateur ranks. The World Junior Championship (Dec. 25-Jan. 5) is about to start in Edmonton, and due to the stringent restrictions of the bubble, no scouts or NHL personnel will be allowed access to the arena.
Langenbrunner will be watching the WJC action closely, connected by the cameras of NHL Network (which will televise all games).
“It’s a lot of video and watching games on TV,” said Langenbrunner, summing up his last few months of tracking the amateurs. “It has some advantages. You definitely see more games in a short time. But in the same breath, you don’t get quite the same feel for what’s going on with the kids as if you were in the building.”
Disruption has been common across the amateur ranks, with most colleges starting the season a few weeks late. The Ivy League was among the first to cancel its entire schedule, a major disappointment for 6-foot-3-inch Yale center Curtis Hall, a fourth-round Boston pick in 2018 who is now in his junior year.
“He’s champing at the bit to play … sees other kids playing … and that’s hard,” said Langenbrunner. “All kids want to play. He finished the semester, and now he’s back home for a little while, skating and working out, trying to do what makes the most sense. A bunch of schools tried to make him transfer, like some of the Ivy League kids did, but he didn’t want do that. I don’t blame him. He’s put a lot of time in at Yale and that’s important to him.”
Langenbrunner, visiting in recent days with his son, Landon, at the University of Utah, has faced an array of postponements and cancellations, teams often forced to call off games because someone has tested positive for the virus.
“It’s pretty much run through every team in the USHL,” he said. “I’ve definitely had weeks scheduled … for example, a trip out toward Green Bay to see Green Bay and Youngstown, and that didn’t work. So, there’s been some adjustments.”
Middleton making nifty moves with alumni team
Rick Middleton, inspired by the NHL’s success with playoffs staged in Edmonton and Toronto bubbles over the summer, helped craft a Bruins alumni team initiative during the fall that has kept the alums on the ice and engaged in their charity efforts throughout the pandemic in recent months.
“We want to push this as the next thing for Bruins alumni,” said Middleton, who is president of the Oldie Black and Goldies. “We had to think outside the box. We all know one day, we’ll end up going back to rinks when the world gets back to normal.”
From Nifty’s lips to the hockey gods’ ears. But while the pandemic rages on with vaccines just beginning to roll out in the US, and sporting options still few, the Bruins alums have staged five of their charity games at the Canton Ice House. Middleton’s No. 16 is in the Garden rafters in large part because of his on-ice creativity. That same thinking cap has helped keep his old pals on the ice.
Key to their efforts: All games are taped by Bruins Alumni TV, packaged into 60-minute shows, and then posted on the club’s website (bruinsalumni.com). The charity teams they face, such as Why Me/Sherry’s House, then are free to post the Alumni TV video on their own websites as a potential fund-raising tool.
The novel approach, noted Middleton, has taken time for some charity groups and potential sponsors to grasp.
“Their sponsors,” he said, “are getting a lot more visibility on the Internet than they are in a program with 200 people sitting in the stands. People are beginning to get it. We put the link right on their website, and in lieu of buying tickets [for live, in-arena action], people can donate right to their website. And all their sponsors are on their dedicated web page — so they’re getting a bigger bang for their buck.”
Instead of traveling to rinks around Massachusetts and throughout New England, the alums have set up permanent digs at the Ice House, where they have the luxury of a dedicated dressing room and showers. In most cases, due to state regulations and individual arena restrictions, hockey players during the pandemic have been forced to dress at home, or in their cars, then yank off skates and hustle home after games to shower.
As the “visiting” team in Canton, the charity groups have the option to gear up in cordoned-off areas adjacent to the ice surface. Anything for charity.
“Yeah, they’ve got to sit in the rink, on cold chairs, and get dressed,” said Middleton. “Or they can get dressed in the car … no showers … everybody is kind of in the same boat. Hockey players are used to roughing it. It’s not like they’ve always had it swanky. In order to raise money for the charities, it’s part of what they have to go through.”
The alums have played five games, most recently against the Matt Light Foundation, and hope to squeeze in five to 10 more games when the spring schedule begins after Jan. 1. Similar to arenas and stadiums throughout North America, spectators are not allowed in the building. Video of the five games is posted on the alum’s website, with others to be added soon, said Middleton.
The games, the emphasis always on fun first, have been slightly altered to limit contact. Players must wear masks at all times, be it while on the bench or in the thick of the action. All play is 4 on 4, at least until Terry O’Reilly, career penalty minutes 2,095, pops over the boards as the next two-minute minor aiming for the sin bin.
“We’ve limited it to 12 players and a goalie,” said Middleton. “And there’s more ice out there when you’re playing 4 on 4. You’re not knocking up against guys and jamming in the corner and all that. It’s a flow game.
“Guys like it … and everyone’s staying healthy, knock on wood.”
A learning curve in the evolution of stick blade
The banana blade era of the late 1960s and into the ’70s, which coincided with the height of the Big Bad Bruins craze, was a short-lived chapter in the evolution and innovation of hockey equipment
Players, forever looking for a shooting edge, were free to modify their stick blades with dramatic bow-like curves. In some cases, the hooks were so acute, recalled Gerry Cheevers, that they resembled the basket-like scoops (cestas) used by jai alai players.
“If you remember,” said Cheevers, the Hall of Fame Bruins goaltender who turned 80 this month, “it was Stan Mikita in Chicago who came up with it. He was the answer to the question, ‘Who invented the banana stick?’ And the answer: Stan Chiquita.”
Mikita and Cheevers were boyhood pals in St. Catharines, Ontario. Mikita lived adjacent to the home where Cheevers took weekly piano lessons in grade school, which forced Cheevers to devise creative ways to slip by Mikita’s gaze in hopes of avoiding being teased. Perhaps a wasted effort if Mikita was busy in the basement, tinkering with the mad science of stick craft.
The carbon-based lightweight sticks of today’s game, in vogue the last 20-plus years, have turned scores upon scores of less-than-average shooters into legit scoring threats. Whenever the issue of possibly downsizing bloated goalie equipment is raised, the puck-stopping brotherhood is quick to bark back that any change in goalie gear should be offset by modifications in the shooters’ turbocharged sticks.
The banana blade provided shooters with a significant edge, particularly wrist shots, because the puck took crazy, unpredictable dips and slices as it fired out of the curve.
“It came at you like one of Hoyt Wilhelm’s pitches,” noted Cheevers, referring to the legendary knuckleballer. “It was impossible to know where it was going. Even the shooters didn’t know where it was going. Stan had it down pretty good. He played on a line [with Chicago] with Dougie Mohns, and Dougie shot hard … it would come off that thing fluttering.”
Upon backstopping the Bruins to a second Stanley Cup title in three seasons, Cheevers departed for the WHA in the summer of ’72. It was the same summer that Hawks legend Bobby Hull bolted for WHA Winnipeg. The big hook was a trademark of the early WHA days
“Because of Bobby, the WHA upped the curve to an inch and a half,” recalled Cheevers. “All of a sudden, as the goalie, guys who couldn’t shoot were scaring the hell out of you … that inch and a half, they had no idea where it was going. There was talk about cutting it back, but Bobby was the face of the WHA and there was no way.”
The NHL soon put the kibosh on the flamethrowers, and imposed a ¾-inch limit on the bowed blades. The WHA embraced the anarchy as added entertainment — the more unpredictable the better.
Hull, 33 when he arrived in Winnipeg, averaged just under 60 goals across his first four seasons in the upstart league. Ironically, noted Cheevers, Hull’s trademark shot was his searing slapper, and the banana blade was of greater advantage for those who preferred wristers.
“The only good thing about it for the goalie,” said Cheevers, “was it worked against backhand shots. They had no backhand shot whatsoever. With a straight blade, two guys that I can think of — Dave Keon and Red Berenson — both had great backhand shots that you had to worry about. But guys like Mohns, Mikita, or even Hull, you knew it was going to come off their sticks funny.”
Upon arriving in the WHA, Cheevers had to create a new book on the shooters across the league.
“I remember playing the Houston Aeros,” he said. “Of course, they were made up mostly of Western Hockey League guys and I didn’t know any of ‘em — but a guy I do remember was [Don] Laraway.”
Laraway, born in 1954, was the Bruins’ first pick (No. 18) in the 1974 draft. The Islanders chose future Hall of Fame center Bryan Trottier, also of the WCHL, at No. 22. Laraway opted for the WHA and never came to Boston.
“He had the biggest hook you’ve ever seen,” said Cheevers. “Boy, could he wrist it — but again, no idea where the puck was going.”
A few years later, Cheevers returned to the Bruins and had to build back his knowledge of NHL shooters. The league by then had scaled back the big curves.
“We’re playing Buffalo, and they’ve got [Rick] Rico Martin,” he said. Martin played with Rene Robert and Gil Perreault on the Sabres’ famed French Connection line. “I didn’t know Rico Martin from a hole in the wall. Well, by the end of the game I did. He had a little hook at the end of his stick and the puck came off it … wow …he was one of two or three shots in my career that I had a bead on, and I absolutely missed it. I took him serious after that. It went through my hair, when I had hair.”
First-round Boston pick Johnny Beecher, who tested positive for COVID-19 last weekend, missed out on a chance to play a second time for Team USA at the World Juniors. His numbers at Michigan have been modest in his sophomore season, but Jamie Langenbrunner remains impressed. “Legitimate straight-line speed and effortless power,” he said. “I’d like to see him think a little less out there, if that makes sense, and rely more on his speed, skill, and strength. Like a lot of kids, sometimes he can overthink it. The key is just to go — go out there and let your skills play.” … John Ferguson Jr. said the Bruins remain in search of site options in Providence. The Dunkin’ Donuts Center, home to the WannaBs, is currently being used as a COVID-19 testing site and also has been designated as a vaccination center. All of which likely will force a change of venue for the Providence Bruins, possibly to Schneider Arena at Providence College, often a backup site for the AHL franchise … Rick Middleton also is busy with his movie venture, “Tough Sledding.” To be shot in the Bay State, the picture (toughsleddingthemovie.com) is the story of the US sled hockey team that Middleton coached to the gold medal at the 2002 Paralympic Games in Salt Lake City. The flick is currently in its capital-raising phase … NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said this past week that the league is still considering using four hub cities to stage games, if that is deemed a safer approach than opening all 31 arenas for regular-season play. One would-be scenario for the Bruins, pegged to be part of a realigned eight-team division in the Northeast, is assignment to a Newark hub, all games to be played in the Prudential Center. Ideally, provided infection rates and fatalities decrease, the league then could consider opening up more rinks, perhaps with fans in attendance — the new world’s version of old-time hockey.