Restart small step to­ward nor­malcy

Af­ter nearly 4 months off, 24-team play­off set to be­gin

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By John Wawrow

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

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