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THE VERDICT: Summer Hockey is Here

There was a time when the NHL went dark during the summer months, but now it's more alive than ever before

by Bob Verdi /

Back in a calmer time, the National Hockey League shut down every summer. We're not talking absolute ancient here, but if you were a dinosaur writing sports and needed to find someone, good luck.

Entire front office staffs scattered for lakefront cottages, fishing holes or swimming pools. Place a call to any franchise headquarters, and you wouldn't even get a switchboard operator. (A certain organization near and dear to our hearts didn't even have one of those during the winter.)

"Nothing happening, in August, actually July and August," recalled Scotty Bowman, the Blackhawks' Hall of Fame Senior Advisor/Hockey Operations. "I was coaching the Canadiens, living on a farm outside Montreal. If I went into the city once or twice over two months, it was for a golf tournament. No cellphones, no computers, no meetings. Nothing. Quiet."

Now, we have hockey in August. Meaningful games. Really. Next thing you know, Mike Tyson will come out of retirement at age 54 to fight again.

After the NHL grew from a tidy Original Six to 12, then 14 and beyond, lazy days of summer gradually vanished into business 24/7. But nobody envisioned what currently exists. The COVID-19 pandemic that has rocked the planet sends the Blackhawks, under extenuating circumstances, to Edmonton for Saturday's opener in a best-of-five Stanley Cup Qualifiers Series against the Oilers in an empty Rogers Place.

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Only two referees and two linesmen might appreciate such silence, but it's a start. When last seen, the Blackhawks downed the San Jose Sharks, 6-2, on March 11 at the United Center. At the time, the Blackhawks fretted about missing the playoffs. But if there were no playoffs, how could you miss them? It was that serious, and, frankly, still is.

A complete shutdown followed, of sports and normalcy. Even in Chicago, we bowed appreciatively toward Green Bay, toilet paper capital of the world. A quarantined population yearned for otherwise mundane trips to the dentist or barber. When life opened up just a bit, people flocked to play golf as a means to reduce stress, counterintuitive given that the sport is designed to inflict torment.

The NHL, boldly and creatively, crafted a plan to carry on, with health and safety foremost, not goals and assists. The careful initiative, involving 24 franchises sequestered in two Canadian hubs, has been roundly acclaimed, with few philippics. It's odd, but isn't everything these days? A dozen hockey teams are assigned to Toronto, where baseball's Blue Jays can't play. Their temporary home is Buffalo.

But, to paraphrase the Cubs' new manager, David Ross, if there's a trophy at stake here, why not go for it? When the Blackhawks, at once young yet experienced, gathered for their charter flight Sunday morning, they were tested. They will be tested again and again, by medical experts, not just the fleet Oilers. The spirit on all sides is admirable, as evidenced by an adjunct to this crisis-management and labor extended a Collective Bargaining Agreement that assures peace through years of probable uncertainty.

Players bubble wrapped in hockey-only hotels might liken the endeavor to when they were kids, traveling here and there, around the clock and calendar, residing under the same roof as their opponents. Summer hockey, after all, is common for youths in North America. Indoor rinks can offer a sheet of ice even when there's no snow outside. They're everywhere, and they're busy at all hours. Hockey players play hockey. They don't say, "but today's a good beach day."

Hockey in the heat isn't unique to the NHL, either. Some of the sport's highlight moments have occurred during the Canada Cup, succeeded by the World Cup, tournaments featuring the elite players from around the globe skating for their flag. These landmark events occurred during the 1970s and 1980s, always before the NHL season commenced. The Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union in 1972 was momentous, but not before superstars on either side turned in their flip flops for skates and gathered for training camp. In August.

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Beneath the ominous COVID-19 cloud, we're dealing with multiple narratives. All 24 participating teams are facing possible elimination, with no fans in sight, and hold the handshakes at series end. For Saturday's national telecast of the Blackhawks vs. Oilers, Hall of Fame broadcaster Doc Emrick will call the play-by-play from his home in Michigan with analyst Eddie Olczyk in Connecticut. For Game 2 Monday night on NBC Sports Chicago, Olczyk will sit far from his Blackhawks' Hall of Fame partner Pat Foley, working from a TV truck somewhere in Chicago.

During Wayne Gretzky's reign, the Oilers dismissed the Blackhawks in three different postseasons. However, when they last met for the 1992 Conference Finals, the Blackhawks waxed Edmonton in straight sets, outscoring the Oilers, 21-8. These Oilers, with their fiery powerplay, owned the top two NHL point producers at the pause, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. That same pair placed among the top four in 2018-19, when the Oilers missed the playoffs. Gretzky, who made his 1979 NHL debut at Chicago Stadium facing off against Stan Mikita, put the Oilers on the map. Gretzky is now an executive with the team. How many goals would he score if still active? Maybe only 30 or so, but he is 59. 

It's been a while between games. Too long. During this enforced intermission, a new NHL member was christened. The Seattle Kraken. Did you know what a kraken was, or is? A kraken is a giant mythical sea monster. Seattle Metropolitans seemed a good fit, inasmuch as they won the 1917 Stanley Cup. But Kraken will work. Coming soon, the 32nd franchise in a league that stepped up first during this chaos. 

Who will win the 2020 Stanley Cup? As the saying goes, Father Time is undefeated and Mother Nature always bats last. Nothing is certain now, except that the NHL is trying. A fastidious and smooth beginning does not guarantee a finish. Who will be the 2020 Stanley Cup champion? Let's hope there is one.

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