The National Hockey League, like everything else that matters in our world, couldn’t escape when COVID-19 swept across North America just over a year ago.
The pandemic took on the 100-year-old league at centre ice and won.
The repercussions disrupted the 2019-20 season far more than even a world war could 80 years earlier. It even forced the Stanley Cup playoffs into the hottest days of summer.
It didn’t end there.
The deadly virus was still having its say when the league attempted to have a normal ‘20-21 campaign. Again the virus won, pushing the action ahead another three months.
When the games finally began — without fans in the stands — four distinctly different divisions offered an unfamiliar product.
For what it’s worth, in my books, the so-called North Division — I prefer Canadian Division — came out stickhandling in far better shape than the three clusters of teams south of the border.
Our politicians were doing much better handling the conditions than their American counterparts.
While former president Donald Trump insisted that the virus would just blow away, hockey players and teams — like those in other sports — have been continually hit by “the bug” in the United States, forcing game cancellations from Atlantic to Pacific.
The seven Canadian franchises, meanwhile, have been a blessing in disguise.
Not only have the games gone on in this country, the unique schedule created by league heads has added plenty of excitement in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver.
Though spectators were replaced by empty arenas, fans have been given a lot of great hockey entertainment while staying home and watching from their favourite seats in front of the big screens.
With Canadian teams playing Canadian teams, the story lines have been positive since mid-January.
I’ve loved every game, every moment.
Excitement is at its best when clubs are competitive and, sure enough, all seven franchises are all doing well.
The Toronto Maple Leafs looked like they were going to run away with the top spot in the north. But they cooled off while other teams took advantage. Now just about everybody is in the race, Even the Ottawa Senators, who started poorly, are making things worth watching, too.
It’s seldom been this much fun.
I confess, I’ve always loved the Canadian rivalries more than the others. Since childhood, I’ve preferred games between the Leafs and Montreal Canadiens.
That’s why I’ve always called the 1950s and ’60s the most dramatic, most exciting period in the NHL.
For me, Leafs-Canadiens was rivalled only by baseball’s battles between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. I wished the Toronto Blue Jays and Montreal Expos could have built such a scenario.
More recently, it’s still been the Toronto-Montreal hockey showdowns that made the games great — even after all these years since the Leafs and Habs were winning many Stanley Cup championships.
With Sportsnet and The Sports Network concentrating on the Leafs, Habs, Senators, Jets, Flames, Oilers and Canucks, I’ve been having a lot of late nights in front of the TV.
This steady parade of Canadian matchups, I assure you, is worth the loss of sleep.
I’m just sorry it’s a one-season situation that will likely disappear as soon as it’s safe to take off our masks.
I’m not suggesting I ignore what’s happening in U.S. rinks. Not a bit.
I have some personal attachments to guys playing down there — fellows like Cole Harbour’s Sidney Crosby with the Pittsburgh Penguins, fellow-Cole Harbour star Nate MacKinnon with the Colorado Avalanche, Hammonds Plains’ Brad Marchand with the Boston Bruins, former Cape Breton Screaming Eagles goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury with the Vegas Golden Knights and former Halifax Mooseheads star Nikolaj Ehlers with Winnipeg.
I can’t overlook them.
But, for the most part, my attention is on the teams in this country.
While addressing this season’s all-Canadian division, I should mention I’ve been asked several times if the NHL ever considered grouping its Canadian teams together.
Fact is, when the NHL was organized in 1917-18, the first franchises were the Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers, Ottawa Senators and Quebec Bulldogs. Soon the Toronto Arenas joined them. It wasn’t until 1924-25 that an American franchise was welcomed — the Boston Bruins.
Young fans must be surprised when they learn from the history books that the league began entirely in Canada — and in a very small part of the country at that.
The hockey map has sure been altered since then.
For fans everywhere, another dimension has been added for those who enjoy getting more involved in the sport.
It’s called fantasy hockey.
The technical world has allowed millions of followers to join on-line leagues, do player drafts, and conduct business just like the bigwigs in the NHL. Making trades and relying on waiver wires permits pretend team managers to adjust rosters during the season.
If you know me, you know where my players come from.
As usual, my roster in this shortened season includes many key Leafs — Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen.
My strategy changed a bit when I realized I could have a steady diet of Canadian teams in my living room just about every night.
On a roster that allows up to 30 players, I currently have 22 players from Canadian teams — eight Leafs, three Senators, three Canadiens, two Jets, two Calgary Flames, one Oiler and, yes, three Canucks to keep me awake real late.
It’s been great.
My one concern is the fact baseball — and fantasy baseball — begins in just a week. Where hockey’s regular schedule always ended before baseball’s began, this year the two sports will be overlapping for 38 days.
So how, in heaven’s name, can a fantasy participant keep track of all the games, all the excitement, in both sports at the same time?
I’ll never get to bed.