It’s been a long 59 months since the NHL shut its doors and pulled the plug on the season back in March of whatever year this is.
As time — of which I have lost all sense of — slowly trudged on from that fateful shutdown day and the scope of the global pandemic’s potential prowess on the sports world became at least a little more clear, it proved harder and harder to really believe we’d get to this point, within a hair’s length of a midsummer resumption of the NHL campaign that would have, under normal circumstances, concluded like a month-and-a-half ago.
It’s been terrible, no doubt about it, and absolutely the strangest time any of us currently-living beings have ever seen in regards to sports, and what we’re about to witness as fans while leagues including the NHL restart amid this pandemic is certainly going to be an absurdly weird experience with no precedent for how it might go.
Weird can be quite delightful when you embrace it, though, so why not drink in all of the fresh sights, sounds and scenes of this new, absurdly odd hockey landscape.
So, a little primer to help prep you for the madness about to unfold in Edmonton and Toronto.
No spectators in the seats
The main glaring, obvious difference both fans and players will have to get past is, of course, the lack of any fans in the stands at games. For most if not all players, going from playing in front of thousands and thousands of screaming lunatics inside of packed barns to skating within the confines of a giant, empty concrete shell will be the biggest adjustment any of them have had to make from a hockey standpoint.
Getting “up” for the games will be tough for some, while energy and role players who often feed off of the atmosphere only a jam-packed playoff arena typically brings will likely have the hardest time adjusting to this strange new reality.
As players get used to their new playoff atmosphere as they inevitably will, those watching at home will have to get used to watching their teams compete inside of these barren ice huts. Fans packing arenas has provided the backdrop for the NHL playoff viewing experience since the inception of live broadcasting, so that not being the case this year is something we’re all going to have to learn to wrap our brains around.
There also won’t be hoards of people there to tell players when they should be shooting on the power play, so hopefully they figure that out on their own.
Trash talk could reach new heights
The language soaring through the air at an NHL hockey game is quite “strong” let’s say, so it’ll be interesting to see how the broadcast networks balance feeding viewers the sounds of the game at ice level without injecting an egregious amount of f-bombs and other r-rated verbiage into the ears of our sweet, innocent children.
The league is implementing a five-second delay on all broadcasts to try and prevent this problem, but its biggest challenge will be providing the viewer with the proper in-game audio experience while not muting basically the entirety of every broadcast because of the grimy language being picked up on the rinkside mics.
Fans and viewers may get more of an insight into the common junk-talk practices of high-level athletes, too, while the players themselves — especially those who really love to flap their gums — will yield much more of the spotlight without the natural in-arena fan noise to drown them out.
TV broadcasts and sounds
The delay and how it’s used will be one noticeable difference you’ll see on the upcoming broadcasts, while the sounds of artificial, video-game style crowd noise will at least somewhat replicate the in-arena atmosphere for viewers, according the league’s “Phase 4" information pack that was sent to media and team personnel last week.
EA Sports supplemental crowd noise — the same technology used in the popular NHL video games — will be utilized by the networks.
Teams also asked their season-ticket holders to submit videos of themselves celebrating, chanting, booing and cheering, which will be played through the loudspeakers and on video boards inside the arenas and at the very least will provide players and coaches a little bit of in-game normalcy rather than having to trudge through the silence of an 11 p.m. Monday night beer-league tilt.
Players’ gear will look a little different too, as the NHL is allowing customized jersey and helmet decals that celebrate charities, front-line heroes, youth programs and those advocating for social justice.
On Sunday, the NHL revealed the look and design of the two bubble locations in Toronto in Edmonton, which see the lowers bowls covered in branded tarps and a plethora of rink-side screens which could potentially provide the backdrop for interesting new broadcasting features.
The bubble arenas will have a much more neutral feel, too, with the Stanley Cup being painted at centre ice for every contest, rather than the traditional home-team logo.
The league’s “Phase 4” info also cites a large increase of 32 cameras rather than the usual 20 that are used for a standard broadcast. Those cams will be moved around in order to capture and generate new, unique viewing angles — hopefully like the NBA has been able to do during its restart scrimmages.
Quality of play could go either way
Usually with the NHL’s thrilling postseason comes a couple of stages of watchability: the first and second rounds are usually absolute dynamite, with the conference and Cup final — though still quite good — often seeing a drop in organization, sharpness and speed due to fatigue, injuries, and things of the like.
However, this year’s postseason showdown will start a bit differently as club’s have had essentially an entire offseason to heal, rest and recuperate, and every team will enter the postseason at full strength and healthy. We’ve never seen a playoff season start with every squad fully intact and rested, and probably won’t see it again.
And while healthy and rested players should have a positive effect on the quality of play, we’ve often seen that go the other way as rust, lack of timing and overall chemistry could all make this a lot more sloppy than it is pretty, which can also be a lot of fun — to watch, at least.
They’ll also be forced to deal with surely unprecedented ice surface issues — basically from Day 1.
The combination of the summer heat in Toronto in Edmonton that will be ever-present through the playoffs, as well as having to jam multiple games per day onto the same rink, every single day, has the makings of a disaster from a play-quality standpoint, especially as the postseason moves along. Sketchy, slushy ice surfaces can provide wildly unpredictable moments and increased excitement, but can also hinder the speed of the game and prevent the execution of a lot of the nuances that come with it. Not having 20,000 fans in the building will help, but teams playing in the daily “late” game in each hub in particular will have extra greasy pond conditions to deal with.
The league will have to step up in a big way when it comes to ice maintenance, but all indicators suggest they at least have the right people in place to do so.
Playoff format and path to the ‘ship
The format of the postseason itself will of course look drastically different as well, with 24 rather than 16 squads qualifying for the playoffs and the top four in each conference getting a bye and avoiding the opening round, best-of-5 matchups.
Those shorter series featuring fresh, healthy teams are sure to be a delight from a viewing standpoint. Clubs will also be re-seeded within their respective conference after each round, which in theory should see the better teams meeting in the later rounds rather than the earlier ones as has often been the case with the usual playoff format.
Lack of real crowd noise and no travel eliminates basically any advantage that comes with earning “home ice” for the postseason, levelling the playing field and opening up this tournament even more.
There is certainly something different about winning a Stanley Cup in such a strange, once-in-a-lifetime season, but the asterisk beside this year’s winner should be a respected one that highlights this season’s champ potentially having the toughest postseason path of any Cup champion ever.
Last minute scratches and the ‘virus factor’
And then we have the daily lineup factor and how potential virus infections could impact each team’s, fan’s and better’s fortunes, especially last minute.
The distinct possibility of one or multiple players on a single team — including star, impact guys — testing positive for COVID-19 certainly exists and is a looming cloud on the NHL’s restart even as players entered the bubble this weekend with zero positive tests league-wide, according to a release.
That’s definitely a huge start and the best possible way to kick off “Phase 4”, but we know how quick this virus can move. What happens when players start dropping and are “unfit to play” one or two or three hours before puck drop? How do teams adjust? Will players start voluntary pulling out of games and series as important as these after positive tests start making their way around the league? Will teams play with short rosters or sit their whole squad if an outbreak happens? How will betting lines be affected for those who enjoy their hockey with a little cash on the line?
We currently know none of the answers to the aforementioned questions, and hopefully, fingers crossed, we won’t have to find out.
Socially distanced Cup celebrations?
If we do make it through to the other side of this and get the whole season in, how different will it all look at the end? For the team that takes home the Cup this season, their families, and fans watching on the tube — a lot.
The after-game celebration for the championship winning squad will likely feature no family members and a very limited amount of media and team support staff on the ice or in the room. Seemingly small issues like passing the Cup from player to player, kissing the trophy, and eating and drinking out of it — all common practices and traditions for championship winning teams over the past several decades — will have to be figured out because of the obvious sanitation and potential transmission issues.
And, no parades, of course.
If we can just get there, though, if we can just make it to see a champion named and with little-to-no virus-related crises, this absurdly strange chapter in hockey history should absolutely be one hell of a read.
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