TORONTO – The last time we witnessed NHL hockey, the storyline was dominated by the experience of the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final against the inexperienced Tampa Bay Lightning, and how that wisdom eventually allowed the Blackhawks to prevail in six games.
Three months later, that same storyline exists, and the Blackhawks still hold the advantage in knowing how to recharge to start a new season so quickly after the last one finished.
Players from each team were here Tuesday to begin the Player Media Tour, an annual event where several of the League's top players do the rounds with the media to set up the upcoming season.
The event is usually held in New York but was moved to Toronto this year to begin the one-year countdown to the World Cup of Hockey to be held at Air Canada Centre starting Sept. 17, 2016.
"We've been through this before a few times where you get kind of used to having short summers and understanding what you have to do to get your body to feel good and rejuvenate mentally as well," said Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith, the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy last season. "It is a short summer, but I think you get used to them to the point that you enjoy it. You want to have long years and a short summer and get right back at it."
Getting used to short summers is something any player in the NHL would love to be forced to do, and the Lightning hope to have begun the process of becoming one of those teams on an annual basis.
"You know it's hard to tell, obviously. Most of us haven't been in that situation before," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said on the impact of a short summer. "You can see teams like Pittsburgh lost in the Final [in 2008] and went right back at it [to win the Final the next year]. I don't think it's going to be a hurdle.
"I know guys are very excited about the season starting again, but we have to make sure we don't take anything for granted. It's a tough league, and we have pretty much the same team, but we know teams are going to be better. We can't hang our hat on last year. We have to make sure we refocus and get ready to do the work that it's going to take to take us back to the playoffs to start with."
The challenge of refocusing on a new season is greater for the Blackhawks, even if they have more experience doing it. The Lightning haven't been celebrating all summer the way the Blackhawks have, so the mental aspect of looking forward to a new season should be easier to grasp for them. Not so for the Blackhawks, who have had to balance the joy of winning the Stanley Cup for the third time in six seasons against the realization that once the party ends, it's time to get back to work.
"There's still that excitement there, especially the moments after winning the Cup, and you want to really take in the energy and just kind of absorb everything that's going on in Chicago, because there's so much going on," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "But at the same time, you know that it would be wise to plan ahead and to think that your offseason's going to go by really fast, and next thing you know you'll be jumping into another season, and if you're not too focused or worried about that, you've got a lot of work ahead.
"I think our guys in our room have done a good job of that, at least taking some time to relax, some quiet time to unwind and really miss the game. Then when it's time to come to training camp, be excited to get going again."
It's not only the winners who need to get used to a different offseason routine. It can be just as difficult for players who are accustomed to playing deep into the postseason but who missed the playoffs to know how to plan their summers.
Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said he needed to figure out what to do with the extra time after missing the playoffs for the first time in his NHL career. Rask took a couple of weeks off after the season before starting his training, and then took another long break in the middle of the summer to make sure he would be in peak form for training camp.
"The more you have time off, you're always questioning if you can play hockey anymore. You know, am I going to be able to play hockey in the NHL?" Rask said. "That's the only difference. I guess we've been on both ends of that one, going all the way and not making the playoffs now. So at least you get a good rest, and you really get mental rest. But also it's a really long offseason, so you kind of have to plan it so you don't burn yourself out during the offseason."
When the players leave here Tuesday, most of them will be on their way to their respective cities to get ready for training camp. That might be when it hits the Blackhawks, when the preparation for an attempt at a second straight championship begins.
"I flew into Chicago the other day, and it felt like yesterday we were playing in the Finals there," Keith said. "I hadn't been back the whole time over the summer, and it still felt like it was just yesterday that we were playing. You get used to that feeling and we know how to deal with it."
Author: Arpon Basu | Managing Editor LNH.com