Welcome to what could be the longest business trip in sports history.
On Monday, 24 NHL teams began preparing for the resumption of the league’s season which hit the pause button back on March 12 due to the coronavirus. Initially, the hope was that this would be only a temporary delay, that things would get back to normal in a few weeks and everything would play out accordingly.
Well, we all know that wasn’t the case. April lingered into May, then into June, then July as the NHL patiently tried to wait it out. There were numerous tweaks and adjustments for the league’s Return To Play plan and like the other sports — the NBA, Major League Baseball, Soccer — just when it appeared everything was under control, Bam!
We saw it here in Las Vegas. It was all in place for the town to be one of the hub cities for when the season resumed. Suddenly, Nevada’s COVID-19 numbers spiked and it was deemed unsafe to play hockey in Sin City.
Goodbye Vegas. Hello Edmonton.
Well, at least there won’t be any potential distractions. The participating teams figure to have their minds on hockey. I mean, what’s a guy gonna do? Sneak out of the hub and have an Uber driver take him to Red Deer?
The biggest challenges? What to pack and being away from loved ones for an extended period. I read where NBA players packed virtually everything for their trip to the league’s bubble outside Orlando. Will NHL players do likewise? Will we see guys bringing blenders, pillows, food, video games and other comforts of home along with their sticks and skates?
Speaking of which, how about those poor NHL team equipment guys? Not only do they have to prepare for 30 players instead of the usual 20, they’ve got to plan for potentially staying until fall. They’re probably going to need a bigger truck to schlep all the gear from the plane to the hotel. But they’re resourceful fellows. I have no doubt they’ll figure it out.
As for missing the wife and kids, one way or another, players will be reunited at some point. If you lose, you’ll see them at the airport when you arrive home. Win and keep playing into the conference finals, the NHL is going to let your family join you in the hotel.
I last saw the Golden Knights on March 13. It was also the last time I had stepped foot inside City National Arena, the team’s practice facility in the Vegas suburb of Summerlin. It’s a 15-minute drive from my house and no, I hadn’t forgotten how to get there.
So with the same excitement a kid might have on his first day of school, I made my way over to watch practice. Of course, nothing these days is normal. In this case, it meant answering questions about my health and getting my temperature checked before they’d allow me inside. And on a day where the outdoor thermometer was 110, you bet I was glad to be inside an ice rink. Who wouldn’t?
The 20 media members who were allowed in had a spot at the top of the stands with numbers for each of us. We were properly socially distanced from each other. I was No. 2 (Radio host Brian Blessing was No. 1) and that was where we were expected to remain, save for Mother Nature calling. But at least we didn’t have to ask for a hall pass to go to the bathroom.
Of course, everyone was wearing a mask. And not the kind Marc-Andre Fleury, Robin Lehner or even Jacques Plante would wear. Here in Nevada, it’s pretty simple — no mask, no admittance to an indoor facility — be it a store, a restaurant or a rink. My glasses kept fogging up like a squirt player’s face shield might, but I worked through it as I attempted to take photos, video and Tweet. Multi-tasking remains an essential part of this job in the 21st Century.
So does participating in a Zoom conference call in order to get quotes. That’s something I’m still figuring out. I found myself on the outside looking in Monday. I probably should hire some of my friends’ kids to assist. But eventually, I got what I needed.
Suffice to say, this is going to be an interesting experience for the league, its players and coaches. The consensus among the Golden Knights is this is going to be a hard-fought, well-earned victory for whichever team is the last standing holding the Cup come late September or early October. Nobody is attaching an asterisk to the champion’s name.
But if Monday was any indication, Peter DeBoer’s team looks like it is ready to make a determined run. To be honest, I expected a slopfest out on the ice with missed passes, errant shots and sieve-like goaltending. Instead, it looked more like the team I had last seen prior to the pause. Everyone was moving well and looked sharp.
The Knights are among the favorites in Las Vegas sportsbooks to win the Cup and I can see why. Granted, it was just the first day. But the overall upbeat attitude and energy from the players and coaches indicates to me they are taking this seriously.
Remember, this team is only in its third year of existence and has already been to the Stanley Cup Final. And whether or not this will be the hardest Cup to win, they appear to be in a position to do just that. Even if that means a 2 1/2-month stay in an Edmonton hotel.