It’s their party, and they can keep smiling if they want to, but the scores of NHL players with designs on heading to Beijing in February to play in the Olympics have been getting a clearer sense of the protracted, miserable ride that could await them, particularly if the searing flame of COVID-19 keeps burning these next 8-10 weeks.
On the surface, sure, who wouldn’t want to go, for all the reasons chronicled and romanticized through the decades: national pride, rigor of competition, the inherent joy of being cloistered in the Athletes Village, surrounded by young, elite athletes (even those luge nut jobs) from around the world?
“As athletes,” noted Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron, who just the other day moved to the sidelines, pinched by the NHL’s COVID protocol, “you want to face the best.”
As the weekend approached, all the concerned parties, particularly the Players Association, continued to hammer through some of the significant concerns. Chief among them: What happens in the unfortunate circumstance that an NHLer tests COVID-positive?
Popping positive would mean pulling out of the tournament on the other side of the world. Bad enough. Heartbreaking.
Potentially far worse, though, would be the prospect of having to remain in China, isolated, for days, if not weeks, after the Games are wrapped and fellow NHLers have returned to their normal Original 32 work life.
What would be the level of medical care available for an athlete left behind, one who could be exhibiting severe symptoms? Also, what of his NHL paycheck for the games he would be forced to miss, not only while still quarantined in China, but after he returns, with time needed to ramp up strength and conditioning?
The NHLPA, NHL, IOC, and a variety of Chinese officials will continue to chew on that through the holidays. The potential parade of horribles stretches from Beijing to Boca to Burbank.
Asked about some of the myriad issues last week, Oilers star forward Connor McDavid acknowledged he found some of it to be “unsettling.”
“I would assume every athlete’s in that boat,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy acknowledged Friday, “whether you are a skier or a hockey player — you know, quarantining in a foreign country for X amount of time, with a foreign government controlling when you could leave, would [give] any player, athlete, or support staff legitimate concerns. I hope they get squared away in the near future. I think everybody wants to participate, if they can go in a healthy environment.”
An unspoken factor here, too, is China’s long history of human rights violations. NHL players, to their credit, in recent years have made strong statements, by individuals and teams, in support of players of color and members of the LGBTQ community who want to play their game. Remember “You Can Play”?
Yet with a chance to journey to Olympus, NHLers have blended right in with thousands of athletes around the world who’ve chosen to turn a blind eye to the pain and suffering the Chinese government has inflicted for decades on its own people.
Be it whimsy or sheer fantasy, one way around many of the pitfalls that could await NHLers in China would be to clip out the hockey portion of the 2022 Beijing Games and stage it as an official Olympic event in North America.
“Vancouver would be perfect,” said a senior executive of one NHL team. “Other cities, too . . . Chicago, LA, Boston . . . I only say Vancouver because they did it in 2010. They know the drill. So you’d think they could pull it off in fairly short order, right? And whatever city, especially in Canada, the buildings would be full for every game. Stage it over here, compensate China with a revenue share, and it’s a whole lot easier for everyone in the NHL.”
It also would be a far better fit, viewing wise, for the North American TV audience. Games would slip neatly into prime-time evening slots and weekends. The NFL would be wrapped, setting the stage for primo all-day Sunday viewing.
There are many downsides to the idea, including athletes from weaker hockey powers, including China, having to head over here to play in the tournament. The best teams will be stocked topped to bottom with NHLers. The also-rans have no shot, but do they deserve to be passed around like pucks just to placate the big boys? It would seem only to add insult to their beatdown.
On a grander scale, the move also would mute much of the aforementioned romance. It would be an Olympic tournament, festooned with the same gold, silver, and bronze medals, but so much of the spirit would be DQ’d.
“Some of it [would be lost],” noted Cassidy, designated to be one of Team Canada’s assistant coaches, under the charge of Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper. “I’ve never been to an Olympics. I’ve been to a World Junior Championship. I think that is part of the memories you create for yourself and your teammates and your country . . . Opening Ceremonies, Closing Ceremonies, wrapped in your country’s flag if you win, the national anthem, if you win.
“All those things, no matter where you are, are a big part of the Olympics. Obviously, the gold medal and the memories of playing are there, but it’s the whole environment. So, yes, I believe you would lose some of that and it would become just another tournament, so to speak. It’s a worldwide event, a global event, and that’s a part you don’t want to lose.”
Safe travels, lads, and more to the point, safe home. It portends to be a road with many tolls.
Tortorella no fan of latest passing fancy
A new bench job has yet to materialize for John Tortorella, leaving his future ex-coaching gig still to be determined. Reminder: His most recent port o’ call was Columbus, a six-year hitch that never saw the Blue Jackets advance beyond Round 2 of the postseason. Both sides amicably walked away this past summer.
Torts didn’t exactly burnish his CV or employment chances during one of his recent ESPN studio hits when he was the guy in the room — no shock — to go thumbs down on the devilish Trevor Zegras’s lacrosse-like feed Dec. 7 that set up Sonny Milano’s goal against the Sabres.
“I’m not trying to be a fool here,” said Tortorella. “I’m just not so sure it’s great for the game. If you did that back in the 2000s, late ‘90s, you would get your head taken off.”
For those who might have missed it, the 20-year-old Zegras, one of Anaheim’s brightest young lights, set up Milano with a lax-like lob over the crossbar from behind the net. The ex-Boston University forward first dropped his stick low, deftly collected it flush on the width of his stick blade, then gave it soft-touch alley-oop by unsuspecting goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
Colin Miller, the ex-Bruins defenseman, was too late in trying to short-circuit the attempt. His partner, Rasmus Dahlin, was out of the play, allowing the alert Milano to rush to the top of the paint and swat it home about halfway up the right post. Milano — once a primo Blue Jackets prospect who didn’t develop under Torts, by the way — was ecstatic. Zegras looked dumbstruck, holding both gloved hands to his head in wide-eyed amazement as Milano hugged him. The photo caption could have read: “What, it was never meant to work!”
The cable sports networks lit up, somewhat like the old days, the very old days, when the cameras only trained on bench-clearing brawls or ugly stick checks to the head. Instead, this time, it was Zegras’s delightfully clever play and the engaging mix of emotion displayed by the two young Ducks. Give us more of that, please, in big scoops.
“It’s cool to watch and all that,” added Tortorella, a man who finds shot blocking to be a pure art form, “but I’m not so sure it’s good for the game. And I stand by that.”
The view here of trick plays: A little goes a long way, not unlike penalty shots. It’s dramatic when the referee blows that whistle and emphatically points to center ice to signal the free try. But, by and large, there’s more drama in making the call than there is in taking the shot. Or maybe I’ve just grown tired of OT shootouts?
Answer: Yep, guilty.
Hockey has many beauties, chief among them its speed and its passing plays — those of the sharp, crisp variety that lead to goals scored off the rush. Pace, finesse, tricky passes, and skillful finish make the joint crackle.
Mixed in here and there, particularly if they capture new fans, the lacrosse moves are fine, useful, engaging bits of eye candy. The fear of seeing them attempted too often is really unbased. In most cases, the speed of the game and physical, challenging nature of defense won’t allow the time and space necessary to set up and deliver the pass, or even attempt it.
Wayne Gretzky, who loved to set up in his “office” behind the net, precisely where Zegras fashioned his play, could have made those lacrosse dishes 5-6 times a night. Those who try it today on, say, a power play, could make it an effective decoy, forcing a net-front defender to charge behind the goal line. If the D-man bites, then only three defenders are working in front. That’s gold for the passer.
“I didn’t see where [Tortorella] was coming from,” Zegras finally said more than a week later. “His opinion — I guess we’ve got to just live with it.”
Wheeler another ‘what might have been’
COVID stole most NHL headlines on the health front over the last week, but it was an old-fashioned, unfortunate wrenched knee a week ago Friday that delivered ex-Bruins forward Blake Wheeler to the sidelines for an extended stay.
Wheeler dinged up while killing a penalty, his knee slamming awkwardly into Winnipeg teammate Nathan Beaulieu. The club didn’t divulge specifics but, before he resigned Friday, coach Paul Maurice said Wheeler will be lost for weeks. It could mean he is out of the Winnipeg lineup until after the Olympic break.
Wheeler, the top-paid Jet, has this season and two more at an average $8.25 million a year, guaranteed. Injuries aren’t as painful as the before times.
Wheeler was dished from Boston with Mark Stuart to Atlanta by then-GM Peter Chiarelli, who picked up Rich Peverley for the successful 2011 Stanley Cup run. Ever since, Wheeler has been nearly a point-per-game player (714 points in 782 games) at right wing. Dating to the start of 2011-12, he ranks seventh in league scoring with 697 points, as the weekend approached.
Would the Bruins have won without the dogged Peverley? Perhaps not. But, man, the price was steep.
Chiarelli also wheeled away two other primo offensive producers in Phil Kessel (to Toronto) and Tyler Seguin (to Dallas). Those two have combined for 561 goals and 1,320 points since departing the Hub of Hockey.
Add in Joe Thornton’s post-Bruins haul of 259 goals and 1,080 points, and Wheeler-Kessel-Seguin-Thornton foursome has produced 1,050 goals and 3,114 points wearing textiles absent the spoked-B. And they’re still going. Mercy.
With Wheeler fresh in their lineup, the Thrashers moved from Atlanta to Winnipeg to start the following NHL season. Of the 38 players to dress for the last Thrashers team in 2010-11, 13 have played hockey somewhere this season, and a 14th, Bryan Little, remains under contract with the Jets.
Ten of those 2010-11 Thrashers have played this season in Europe, including Bruins short-timer Paul Postma, now on D for Klagenfurt, Austria. And three others still draw NHL checks — Zach Bogosian with Tampa Bay; Andrew Ladd, Arizona; and Evander Kane (recently waived by the Sharks).
The ever-affable Anton Khudobin, in his days with the Bruins, once summed up goaltending this way: “Sometimes you’re on top of the horse, sometimes you’re under it.”
Khudobin (3-3-1, with dull numbers, 3.73/.873), was taken for a rough ride this past week, waived by the Stars early in year No. 2 of his three-year, $10 million pact with the 2020 Cup finalists.
No one claimed him, so for now the Kazakhstan-born stopper is back in the minors (AHL Texas), his return to Dallas subject to the play of Jake Oettinger and Braden Holtby. Much like the Bruins, the Stars have a very hard time scoring. Boston and Dallas each had 70 goals as of midweek. Only the Canadiens, Blackhawks, Islanders, and Coyotes had scored fewer.
As Doby was packing bags, the Stars’ onetime ace, Ben Bishop, had no choice but to call it quits. The ex-University of Maine star, 35, was done in by a bad knee, bone-on-bone friction in the joint too excruciating for him to continue.
“If I was a forward, I could be playing right now,” Bishop explained during what at times was an emotional farewell news conference. “But with the butterfly, the torque you put on your knee, it just really couldn’t get better.”
The butterfly style, introduced decades ago by Montreal legend Patrick Roy, demands that goalies drop to their knees and flare out each leg pad, helping them cover the full 6-foot width of the net. Highly effective, and an orthopedist’s cash-flow dream for knee and hip repair.
Ex-Bruin forward David Backes kicked up a minor bit of dust the other day during a St. Louis-based podcast, noting how he and coach Bruce Cassidy differed in playing philosophies.
“He was a small, puck-moving defenseman,” the 37-year-old Backes told podcasters Cam Janssen, an ex-Blues teammate, and Andy Strickland, “and I tried to eat smaller, puck-moving defensemen.”
Yes, a good line, and it received plenty of play across the Internet. Backes also detailed again his visit with University of Michigan neurologist Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher in 2019. Noting that he had endured at least 10 concussions by that point of his career, Backes was convinced prior to his exam that he would be told his career was finished.
After 2½ days of neuro testing, Kutcher told Backes there was “nothing wrong” with his brain. Kutcher, though, informed the 6-foot-3-inch, 215 pound winger that some of the tests showed results more consistent with a migraine sufferer. Backes said on the podcast that he suffered his first migraine only weeks ago, while playing with his son.
Otherwise, relating to his Boston experience, Backes was miffed how he was treated here in the end, once the Bruins placed him on waivers. He said the club denied his requests to keep working out in Brighton, or at AHL Providence, leaving him no alternative but to try to stay in shape at home for six weeks. It came to the point, he said, he was left lifting heavy containers of cat litter to maintain his strength.
Backes arrived in Boston as a good, well-intentioned guy and proved to be GM Don Sweeney’s most expensive UFA misread, signing in July 2016 for five years/$30 million. It remains the GM’s single most costly purchase in the open market. Backes simply didn’t fit.
As Backes noted during the podcast, his best asset in St. Louis was when he imposed will and brawn deep in the offensive end, be it by punishing defensemen on the back wall or grinding at the top of the crease. Cassidy, hired to replace Claude Julien in February of Backes’s first season in Boston, preferred a speed and possession game, and playmaking through the attack zone. Backes became the square peg in Cassidy’s circle game.
It proved a very pricey parting. To unload Backes on the Ducks, Sweeney yielded a prospect (defenseman Axel Andersson), a first-round draft choice in 2020 (No. 27, Jacob Perreault), and received Ondrej Kase, whose tour in Boston was limited to 20 games (11 playoffs) because of concussion issues.
Not offered a deal in Boston, Kase signed with Toronto over the summer and stood 8-7—15 through 27 games. Backes called it a career when there were no takers after last season. He played only 37 NHL games, going 4-6—10, after reaching the Cup Final with the Bruins in 2019.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.