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Alberta

Canadian fans ready to embrace return of NHL in season restart amid summer heat

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EDMONTON — As the summer heat shimmers off the pavement and stationary cars double as sweltering four-door Dutch ovens, Canada’s favourite winter pastime is officially back.

The National Hockey League begins its ground-breaking, five-round elimination  tournament Saturday with 24 teams split between Edmonton and Toronto.

The question is whether fans, finally able to enjoy the outdoors in this year of isolation, masks, and misery, will tune in to watch computer enhanced hockey beamed in from empty hub-bubbled arenas during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Clay Imoo, a Vancouver-based Canucks superfan, says any time is a good time for hockey.

“It’s a bit strange seeing (the games) on TV, admittedly, at the end of July, early August, but as a season-ticket holder for the past 10 years I’m absolutely thrilled,” Imoo, 46, said Friday in an interview.

“It’s needed right now. There’s a lot of crazy stuff going on. There’s other priorities in the world, for sure, but I think it’s also a nice way to get some normalcy back.”

Imoo runs a YouTube video blog, with analysis, chat, and irreverent song parodies on all things Canuck.

When Vancouver faces off against the Minnesota Wild on Sunday in Edmonton, he plans to be home watching with his family, wearing his favourite team jersey (a retro black, red and yellow version with the swooshy hockey skate logo and Quinn Hughes’ number 43 on the back).

Six Canadian teams are in the hunt for the Stanley Cup: the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens are playing in the Eastern Conference bubble in Toronto while the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets and Canucks are isolating in safe zones around Rogers Place in Edmonton’s downtown.

Calgary is playing Winnipeg, guaranteeing at least one Canadian team will be in the sweet-16 round, which is the start of the traditional playoffs.

No fans are allowed in the arenas. Tarps drape the seats in the lower bowls. Massive video screens hang from the ceilings along with a camera affixed to the end of a gyrating, swooping, boom to deliver funky angled shots of the action.

Fans will see an enhanced experience, including canned cheers and applause when the “home” team scores.

Canada has been socially distanced from Stanley’s mug for close to a generation, with the Montreal Canadiens the last team to hoist the championship trophy in 1993. But regardless of watching to see if Canada can regain the cup, the question remains: who the heck wants to watch hockey on TV in August?

Actually, quite a few Canadians do, said Dave Korzinski, research director for pollster Angus Reid Institute.

Angus Reid surveyed 1,519 Canadians online in late July and, of those, 518 said they traditionally watch playoff hockey.

Of the 518, about 72 reported they were jazzed or very jazzed to watch bubble hockey while the rest said they can take it or leave it or don’t care.

Sportsnet says 4.3 million Canadians caught some part of Tuesday’s exhibition doubleheader, featuring a Maple Leafs-Canadiens game in Toronto, and the Oilers against the Calgary Flames in Edmonton. The network says they were the most watched exhibition games in Sportsnet history.

“You’ve got about a quarter of people who are very excited for this,” said Korzinski in an interview.

“That group is really engaged and ready to rock.”

Age wise, the poll suggests younger fans are more engaged in this unusual summer format than those 55 years or older. Of the 55-plus set, 36 per cent said they don’t care to watch shinny in the dead of summer. (Hey you millionaire hockey kids, get off my lawn.)

Korzinski said the results come with all kinds of caveats.

If the Leafs get knocked out in the elimination round by the Columbus Blue Jackets, for example, that clicking sound you hear could be TV sets shutting off all across central Canada.

But maybe the Leafs lose and the Connor McDavid-Leon Draisaitl Edmonton Oilers scoring machine goes on a deep playoff run and captures the national imagination. Click. The sets are back on.

The other factor, Korzinski said, is while hockey in the August heat may not be ideal, exciting playoff matchups in September as the leaves fall and the nights get chilly could be just what Canada needs.

“I think you could see a lot of momentum for this tournament as it goes along,” he said.

The NHL acknowledges it’s in uncharted territory by running a five-round tournament while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. The league suspended play in mid-March as the regular season was winding down.

The Stanley Cup final, set for Edmonton, won’t even begin until late September.

The league is being super-careful to ensure COVID doesn’t breach the hub-bubbles.

Media members covering the games get regular temperature checks and sit, masked up and isolated, high and alone in the rinks. Post game in Edmonton, they walk down the concourse to curtained-off areas where they can ask questions of players appearing on a Zoom screen. Coffee and water are free. Hot dogs are $6.

But it’s not as if hockey in the heat is unusual.

The NHL has, ironically, gradually conditioned fans for this over the decades by extending this traditional winter sport longer and longer into the late spring and early summer.

Also, some of Canada’s greatest hockey memories have come when the sun is still high in the sky.

In September 1972, Paul Henderson scored the greatest goal in Canadian hockey history (an incontestable fact; don’t @ me) when Team Canada beat the Soviet Union in the final game of their Summit Series.

In September 1987, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux worked a give and go for the ages to edge the Soviets in the Canada Cup final.

While the opening weekend will answer some questions, others linger.

How will this affect Toronto fans planning the Cup parade route as soon as the Leafs win their first playoff game?

What will the cup celebration look like? How surreal will if all players spray each other with champagne on Zoom when the cup is won?

How will this affect the game long-term and how fans interact with it?

Change is inevitable, said Korzinski, as we all try to imagine a future where it’s once again safe to sit cheek by jowl with 19,000 fans to yell, cheer, and be gloriously free to jostle for T-shirts cannon-launched at us from below by fuzzy-headed mascots.

“This might be a bit of a new normal. It will be interesting to see how the NHL leverages it and how this initial experiment goes,” he said.

If nothing else, a Canadian win would be ironic and poetic punctuation to a Kafkaesque year of COVID surrealism: only after we closed the entire U.S. border was Lord Stanley finally able to come home.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 31, 2020.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

Alberta

Flames ground Jets 4-1 to take series lead, Winnipeg’s Scheifele injured

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EDMONTON — The Calgary Flames rode superior special teams to a 4-1 win over the demoralized Winnipeg Jets to start their qualifying-round series Saturday.

The Jets didn’t recover from losing centre Mark Scheifele to injury early in the first period. They were outshot 33-18 and dominated by the Flames in the second period.

Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan produced power-play goals and Tobias Rieder scored shorthanded in the second. Andrew Mangiapane added an empty-net goal.

Andrew Copp countered for the Jets in the first period.

Cam Talbot made 17 saves for the win in his first playoff start with the Flames.

Whether it was the 33-year-old or David Rittich who would get the nod for Game 1 of the best-of-five series was much-debated in Calgary, and not revealed until game time.

Talbot had less work than Vezina Trophy nominee and Jets counterpart Connor Hellebuyck, although the Flames goaltender weathered three straight Jets power-play chances in the third.

Hellebuyck stopped 29 shots in the loss.

The potential loss of season scoring co-leader Scheifele would be devastating for Winnipeg’s Stanley Cup prospects.

The Flames (36-27-7) ranked eighth in the conference and the Jets (37-28-6) ninth when the NHL suspended the season March 12.

The only all-Canadian matchup in the NHL’s qualifying round had little history from the 2019-20 season.

Their lone meeting was the Oct. 26 outdoor Heritage Classic in Regina, which Winnipeg won 2-1 in overtime.

But animosity brewed in the first period when Scheifele went awkwardly into the boards at 5:41.

He appeared to jam his left leg under him as Flames winger Matthew Tkachuk applied his arm to Scheifele’s back.

As Scheifele writhed in pain, Winnipeg’s bench directed a stream of expletives at Calgary’s.

Tkachuk’s skate appeared to make contact with Scheifele’s. No penalty was called on the play.

Jets captain Blake Wheeler summoned Tkachuk for retributive justice on the Flames forward’s next shift. Tkachuk obliged and the two traded punches. 

Just 31 seconds after that scrap, Adam Lowry dished a backhand from behind the net out front to Copp to whip over Talbot’s glove.

But Winnipeg otherwise mustered little offence with a power play held scoreless on seven chances.

Jets winger Patrik Laine headed to the dressing room early in the third after a collision with Flames captain Mark Giordano.

Calgary went 2 for 4 with a man advantage.

Backlund buried a high shot on Hellebuyck’s blocker side at 18:14. Calgary’s Rieder shelved a backhand on a short-handed breakaway at 12:51.

The puck bobbling on a pass from Sean Monahan, Gaudreau deftly corralled it to get a sharp-angled shot away and by Hellebuyck’s glove at 7:06 to pull Calgary even.

The Jets and Flames got their first taste of playoff hockey without fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The cold, cavernous interior of Edmonton’s Rogers Place was tarted up with multiple large light screens throwing colour onto screens covering empty seats.

The clack of the puck on sticks and exhortations from the players’ benches were often the only sounds heard after faceoffs.

Calgary was the home team Saturday and will be again for Game 2 on Monday. Winnipeg is the home club in Tuesday’s Game 3.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published August 1, 2020.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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Alberta

Fans still drawn to arenas despite secure zones as NHL returns to ice

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EDMONTON — It was almost 30 C as Edmonton Oilers fan Darnell Belcourt stood outside the protective bubble that surrounds Rogers Place and waited for the puck to drop in the team’s opening qualifying round game against the Chicago Blackhawks.

The jumbo screen he was watching was inside the fence that surrounded a plaza that’s intended for players, coaches and staff to relax outdoors, but a few fans like Belcourt still felt it was the best place to watch as the NHL resumed its COVID-19 truncated season on Saturday.

“I’m going to be here every game. Next time I’m going to bring a chair, though,” Belcourt laughed as he alternated between standing on concrete and sitting on the small window ledge of a nearby office building.

Comfy chairs and cold beer weren’t far away, however, as many fans filled bars near Rogers Place — at least as much as new social-distancing rules would allow.

“It’s going on right there!” exclaimed Hanna Warawa, who watched the game on a screen set up on the patio of Mercer’s Tavern, directly across the street from the arena.

David Clanahan, who watched at the Thrift Shop bar not far away, said August seemed like a weird time to watch hockey. But hot as it was, he still wore a jersey.

“It’s way too hot, but worth it,” he said.

In Toronto, the streets around Scotiabank Arena and its nearby secure zone were relatively quiet when the first game between the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes began earlier on Saturday.

Many nearby restaurants were closed and much of the perimeter around the arena was blocked off. Kellys Landing Bar Grill Hub Restaurant was showing the games on its screens near the arena but had many tables available — a better indication of interest in Canada’s biggest city might come Sunday night when the host Maple Leafs open against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Jordan Alexander, manager of Sport Chek at Maple Leaf Square near the arena, said they’re selling about one-eighth the amount of Leafs merchandise compared to Toronto Raptors items in recent weeks. The Raptors also began their restart on Saturday near Orlando, Fla.

Alexander figured some streets might be shut down for some fanfare, but that didn’t happen and so far “it’s been pretty minimal impact.”

“I was expecting to see fans waiting to see the players,” he said. “I thought people might come down, but people have been respectful in terms of giving space and all of that. ”

Self-described “massive Leafs fans” Michael Papaeliou and Alyssa Derosario made a day trip to the city from Markham, Ont., to visit the Hockey Hall of Fame and possibly catch a game on TV at a restaurant Saturday.

“So excited for it to return,” Papaeliou said. “The NHL is doing a really great job, better than any other league, to make this work.”

They praised the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols, and the blockades set up around the Fairmont Royal York, one of two hotels the NHL is using in Toronto.

“Especially in a city like Toronto that’s so busy, it’s good to see that they’re practising the right rules and regulations safety-wise,” said Derosario.

During the Oilers-Blackhawks game in Edmonton, about 40 adults and children stood on Jasper Avenue not far from Rogers Place protesting an indoor mask bylaw that went into effect in the city Saturday.

Many fans watching in bars, however, seemed to appreciate the precautions the bars were taking, such as requiring people to sanitize their hands when they entered.

“It seemed like the best way to still watch the game around some people but still taking some reasonable safety precautions,” Clanahan said.

Nicholas O’Connell, who was also at Thrift Shop, said he had his mask, and was just thankful hockey was back.

“We didn’t think we’d be sitting here a couple of months ago because of COVID, and now we’re able to hang out with our friends which is pretty good.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 1, 2020.

— With files from Victoria Ahearn in Toronto and Donna Spencer in Edmonton.

 

Rob Drinkwater, The Canadian Press

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august, 2020

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