July 14, 2020

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Laugh scored by Blake Wheeler, assisted by Jamie Benn; time of the fun...

Opinion

Who knew these guys were actual human beings, and not just cliché-spewing robots as bland as week-old bologna?

I'm talking about National Hockey League players and perhaps the one silver lining to the current season being on indefinite pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like all those leaves you neglected to rake last fall now being exposed by the rapid snow melt, we're seeing some fun personalities suddenly emerging as the NHL tries to keep itself relevant in the public eye by hosting daily video conferences.

You won't find any of the "Giving it 110 per cent" and "getting pucks deep" tripe we've become so accustomed to hearing in these hot-stove sessions.

No, we're getting Anaheim forward Ryan Getzlaf showing off the chicken coop he's building while his nine-year-old son hijacks the family golf cart and takes it for a joyride; "that's not ideal at the moment," the veteran cracked during last week's call. No kidding.

Other highlights included Boston defenceman Zdeno Chara ripping on Tuukka Rask's unfortunate flatulence issues, and Blake Wheeler and Jamie Benn engaging in some fun verbal jousting as they took a trip down memory lane and pulled back the curtain on their on-ice shenanigans.

"I know me and Wheels, I think I ask him to fight every game we play," the Dallas Stars captain said during Tuesday's entertaining Zoom call involving the Central Division foes, which also included Colorado's Gabriel Landeskog and Minnesota's Zach Parise. Selected members of the media, including me and Free Press colleague Jason Bell, were invited to submit questions and participate.

"There was one game, I think we lined up against each other 20 times and he asked me to fight 20 times. It was the third period of a tie game, or whatever, and he’s like, ‘Are we going?’" said Wheeler.

"Those are the things you miss about the game. Sort of that adrenaline going into it. I know I’m telling Benny 15 times not tonight. Maybe we’ll go one of these days. It’s great. It’s what I love about the job. It’s what gets you going."

Of course, the only scrapping going on right now is between Wheeler's bored children at home, as the Jets captain described the daily conflicts he and his wife, Sam, are forced to referee between seven-year-old son Louie and four-year-old daughter Leni.

Winnipeg Jets' Blake Wheeler, seen here with his four year old daughter Leni, during a video conference call. The NHL has hosted daily calls to help maintain interest during the pandemic and provide audiences insight into player personalities. (NHL)

Winnipeg Jets' Blake Wheeler, seen here with his four year old daughter Leni, during a video conference call. The NHL has hosted daily calls to help maintain interest during the pandemic and provide audiences insight into player personalities. (NHL)

For the guy who launched the "stay in the fight" motto for the Jets this season and should have been preparing for the final three regular-season games this week in Calgary, Colorado and Arizona, I'm pretty sure this isn't what Wheeler had in mind.

But such is the current state of the world, with players forced to adapt to the new normal, which includes taking on increased parental duties at home, bingeing on Netflix shows — Tiger King and Ozark were the two mentioned most often Tuesday — and staring at their significant others in stunned silence at the end of another long day while reaching for the nearest bottle of wine.

"We opened the wine at five and I fell asleep watching Tiger King at 8:30," Parise said of his Monday evening.

"Five o'clock cocktail hour is starting to creep into the threes," added Wheeler.

In that sense, they're just like all of us right now, trying to make the best of a bad situation. And the NHL may have caught lightning in a bottle, as a result.

Call it my Canadian bias, but I'm a firm believer the NHL has the most exciting product of the four major pro sports leagues. But they don't hold a candle to the NBA, NFL or MLB when it comes to marketing their stars, especially in plenty of markets south of the border where they can use all the help they can get.

For whatever reason, hockey culture has traditionally frowned upon athletes being perceived as being "bigger than the game," and those with big voices or platforms are often frowned upon by others. For an example, see the vitriol that is often hurled towards P.K. Subban, who is often called a showoff, or egomaniac or much, much worse.

As much as we'd all like to be talking playoff races and the quest for the Stanley Cup getting underway next week, the unfortunate reality is none of that is happening any time soon. But that doesn't mean all is lost, or the sport has to go entirely dark.

But now, far away from the rinks and the heat of battle, we're getting a chance to see players in a more personal environment, which includes having their children join them on camera, playful jabs and friendly trash-talking at each other and sharing juicy morsels of info such as what teammates would be the best, and worst, to be quarantined with.

"Great guy but lazy and tired all of the time. A little bit of a slob. On the airplane, his chair is gross and there is crap everywhere. From what I’ve heard, it’s pizza boxes all over the place," Parise said of fellow Wild forward Jordan Greenway.

To quote one of my all-time favourite Seinfeld clips: "That's gold, Jerry! Gold!" Parise also revealed his choice to be locked up with for the long term would be Kevin Fiala.

"My wife probably does, too," he said of the prospect of being locked down with Fiala. Yikes! Parise also noted his daughter, for a pre-shutdown school assignment, picked Fiala as her favourite sports hero. Double yikes!

As much as we'd all like to be talking playoff races and the quest for the Stanley Cup getting underway next week, the unfortunate reality is none of that is happening any time soon. But that doesn't mean all is lost, or the sport has to go entirely dark.

It was refreshing to see these athletes let their guard down, especially at a time when fans are looking for a little levity to the daily doom and gloom of the news cycle. I hope the NHL, along with individual team PR departments, is paying attention to how well these played out and what a good look it is for all involved. The NHL is the only league doing this sort of thing so far, and for that it should be commended.

For now, the Zoom sessions are over, with one player from all 31 teams joining in so far. But it would be foolish not to continue given how well the first round went. There's a rather captive audience out there just looking for a distraction. And I suspect there's plenty more entertaining personalities waiting to be uncovered.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

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.

Read full biography

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