Jets down Canucks 4-1 in fan-less affair
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/07/2020 (964 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
EDMONTON – It looked like a typical NHL game, complete with the blazing speed, crisp passes and sizzling shots we’ve come to expect from the best pro players on the planet. Global pandemic or not, that’s not changing anytime soon.
But it sure didn’t feel like one from my perch high above the ice at Rogers Place on Wednesday night, where the Winnipeg Jets downed the Vancouver Canucks 4-1 in an exhibition tune-up prior to this weekend’s start of the most unique Stanley Cup playoffs in history.
As one of just a handful of writers across North America granted access to watch the action in-person, let me say two things: It’s great to have hockey back. And this is going to take some getting used to.
The last time I was in this building was exactly 20 weeks ago to the day, which turned out to be the final night of the 2019-2020 regular season. It feels closer to 20 years given all that’s changed since.
There were more than 18,000 fans in the seats that night watching the Jets beat Connor McDavid’s crew. On Wednesday, there was zero, a grim reminder that we’re still a long way from “normal” despite the long-awaited return of the NHL.
Their absence was especially noticeable as the Jets hit the ice to the familiar, albeit pre-recorded introduction from long-time PA announcer Jay Richardson, only to be met by complete silence, save for a few “Let’s go boys!” and “Whoooos” that could be heard loud and clear.
When Tucker Poolman opened the scoring late in the first period – and who had the stay-at-home Jets defenceman as the one to break the club’s four-and-a-half month scoring “drought”? – every single celebratory F-bomb was apparent.
“I mean it’s different. There’s no question about that. I would say what was positive about it, what I liked about it, is you’re getting the whole interaction on the bench. So between the players and the trainers and the coaches there’s always a lot of chatter, but you almost don’t hear it because of the fan noise. And I’m not a fan of really loud music piped in at the timeouts, you can’t talk to the players as much as you’d like. I actually liked that part of it; it was way easier to communicate with your team. It was way easier for them to interact with each other,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice.
There’s a good reason broadcast networks have added a five-second delay, along with artificial crowd sweeteners from the EA Sports video game franchise. Otherwise, the CRTC would be having a field day over the next couple months.
But if you can tolerate some colourful language, the natural sounds of the game in all their glory were a highlight. From hearing skates squeak with every hard stop, players calling for passes or warning teammates from the bench about an incoming opponent, to your run-of-the-mill lobbying for penalties and complaining to officials, this is the type of stuff normally drowned out by big crowds.
If I were in charge of the TV presentation, I’d be finding a way to maximize that for viewers at home.
“During the play, it felt completely normal. Once there was a TV time out, it was kind of crazy. Could use some trivia out there or something to keep everyone involved. I’m not sure how it was for the goalies. I think there’s going to have to be a lot of talk on the bench in time outs and just keep each other engaged because they’re pretty long,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler.
Another fun touch is the NHL’s attempt to make the designated home team feel like they’re in their own building. From Richardson’s voice to the usual mix of Bell MTS Place music to the familiar goal horn, it seems like no detail was missed — unless you’re a fan of the “True North” shout during the anthem, which was not included.
League officials tell me this was only the start. Other bells and whistles are being saved for when the games start to count on Saturday night, and the large video screens set up in the stands will be put to good use.
Might we seem a virtual Jets “Whiteout” happen? I wouldn’t bet against it.
Outside the rink, it was hard to escape the reality that this pandemic is far from over, with Alberta announcing 133 new cases and three new deaths on Wednesday. Overall, they have 1,430 active cases in the province, prompting Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw to declare, “the curve is no longer flat in Alberta.”
Of course, you’d never know it inside the secure bubble environment created for all 12 Western Conference clubs here in Edmonton, and a similar set-up for Eastern teams in Toronto, which includes rigorous health and safety protocols and daily testing. So far, so good, with not a single positive case in the league in more than a week. Keeping the virus out is the key to keeping hockey going.
As for the game-day experience, one big bonus was that the drive to Rogers Place was a breeze. No fans in the stands = no traffic. Across the street from the beautiful downtown barn, Mercer Tavern would normally be buzzing, especially on a gorgeous game-day where the temperature topped 30C. Instead, I only counted a handful of people sitting on the patio, and none of them were wearing hockey jerseys.
Normally I’m the one asking questions when I go to a rink, but the roles were reversed. Using an online health pass obtained through the league’s partnership with the security company Clear, I could only get inside once I confirmed I was symptom-free, hadn’t travelled abroad within the past 14 days and haven’t been around anyone with COVID-19. A quick temperature check later and I was being escorted to a makeshift press box, which is actually one floor below the usual one.
That area is being reserved for those inside the NHL’s secure bubble, such as the TV broadcast crew and NHL staff. The handful of us independent media, which included just one other Winnipeg scribe and a couple from Vancouver, were on the second tier.
Other noticeable changes to routine include a morning skate held in private, with writers not allowed to attend, and post-game interviews done via Zoom despite being in the same building as the players. Face-to-face access is not permitted at this point, so all scrums are being done online.
As for the game itself, one thing remained constant – Connor Hellebuyck is very, very good. He stopped 37 shots to lead his team to victory. The only puck that beat him was during a goalmouth scramble with just over six minutes left in the third period.
“I thought it was great, being able to get to that playoff battle mentality and that battle level. So this game was not just an exhibition for me, it was getting that battle intensity up,” said Hellebuyck.
Nikolaj Ehlers, Dmitry Kulikov and Wheeler, into an empty net, had the other Winnipeg goals.
“So that would be the best exhibition game in terms of effort that I’ve ever seen. This was a completely different thing. There was some really good pace to it. In some ways, parts of that were better than games we see in the first two months of the season. I don’t think the hands are there quite yet, but the legs were. They were driving pretty good,” said Maurice.
Prior to puck drop, the Jets and Canucks gathered around centre ice in what the teams described as an act of “solidarity in support of all front-line workers and against acts of racism and acts of hate.”
The Jets will take Thursday off, then have one final practice on Friday before the best-of-five series against Calgary begins Saturday night.
“We’re a pretty competitive group so we were definitely battling and trying to get ourselves ready. There were a few bumps there tonight and obviously when the playoffs start, that’s going to ramp up on both sides so I think that would be the only thing that’s missing. Our group, we’ve been through the battles already over the last couple of years. We know what this playoff intensity feels like so we’re prepared for that,” said Wheeler.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
Updated on Thursday, July 30, 2020 9:09 AM CDT: Corrects spelling of "scoring"