Restart small step toward normalcy
After nearly 4 months off, 24-team playoff set to begin
TORONTO — NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman took a short break from watching the final few exhibition games Thursday to ponder the significance of awarding the Stanley Cup some two months from now — should all go as planned.
The magnitude of the task it took to simply reach the cusp of resuming play following a four-and-a-half month pause certainly suggests this year’s celebration has the potential of being a shared experience.
“That’s a very profound question, and I think the answer is extraordinary times present extraordinary challenges. And it takes an extraordinary group of people with an extraordinary effort to get the result you want,” Bettman told APin a phone interview.
“If you look at the NHLfamily as a whole, starting with our fans, our players, our people at the league office and our club, the focus, the determination, the desire and the effort — assuming we’re able to get to that goal — will have been the ultimate collaboration,” he added. “I believe whoever ultimately hoists the Stanley Cup will deserve it.”
The first step towards closing the NHL’s most unique season begins Saturday, with the start of the expanded 24-team playoffs in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta.
A nine-day slate of a potentially 52 games — depending on the results of the eight best-of-five series — will begin with the Hurricanes facing the Rangers at noon (Eastern) in Toronto. The top four teams in each conference, meanwhile, will play a round-robin series to determine seeding for the first round to begin Aug. 11.
Rust will certainly play a factor, given how the exhibition games over the past three days featured a mix of sloppy and surreal.
The crispness might take some time to develop after months with no action, and the ice conditions will need to be monitored in the summer heat — even in empty arenas — with as many as three games a day.
With players eager to hit opponents after weeks of practices and scrimmages, New York rivals Johnny Boychuk and Brendan Lemieux dropped the gloves for an old-time hockey tussle.
So much for self-isolation.
Keep in mind, too, what might spill over with teams quarantining in a “bubble” in the same hotels — though staying on separate floors.
“The chance for weirdness is probably inevitable,” Islanders veteran Cal Clutterbuck said. “I’m sure there’ll be a lot of head down, walk right by, maybe just give a quick nod if you run into somebody. I’m sure it’ll be civil but strange, although you never know.”
Chosen as one the NHL’s two hubs is a point of pride for Toronto Mayor John Tory, even if it means fans can’t attend.
“We consider ourselves over others — like it or not — to be the hockey capital of the world, and so this kind of reinforces that,” Tory said. And he doesn’t mind Edmonton being chosen to host the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final, even if it means the Maple Leafs win their first championship since 1967 in Alberta.
Tory has already made initial plans for the Cup celebration.
“If it needs to be a one-car parade with no spectators on Bay Street, we will have such a parade,” Tory said. “So long as the one car has the Stanley Cup in it.”
AP’s Stephen Whyno and Dan Gelston contributed