CHICAGO - Hockey season started this week, at least for more than 30 NHL stars who gathered in Chicago to participate in the NHL's annual Player Media Tour.
Some of the league's biggest names, including hometown Blackhawks heroes Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Stanley Cup champion Ryan O'Reilly, New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist and recently traded defenseman P.K. Subban of the New Jersey Devils, among others headlined the event targeted for the NHL's national and international broadcast outlets along with major North American media.
Those established players were joined Thursday and Friday by emerging stars, such as 20-year-old Colorado defenseman Cale Makar who played his first professional game during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs four days after completing his college hockey career along with all-time Seattle Thunderbirds great Mathew Barzal, 22, now approaching his third full NHL season playing big-time minutes and scoring clutch goals for the New York Islanders.
On Friday, Barzal was asked about his biggest rivalry as a player during a NHL.com podcast interview with stellar writer and NHL Network broadcast personality Dan Rosen. Surely warming the hearts of Seattle T-Birds fans, Barzal promptly identified the Western Hockey League juniors "I-5 rivalry" between the Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips as his top choice, then quickly added, well, the Portland Winterhawks versus Seattle was equally intense.
The day befoere, Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba posited right there with Barzal. Dumba told NHL Seattle during an interview that he recalls "lots of noise and getting into it" with Seattle fans when he played Western Hockey League games for both Red Deer and Portland. He was traded from Red Deer to Portland midseason as a 19-year-old.
"I remember playing Seattle in the playoffs that year," said Dumba, smiling at the memory. "All of our parents wanted to come to the games in Seattle. We [the players and team management for Portland] had to get our parents a suite rather than have those Winterhawks jerseys in the stands. It might have become a little too chippy. It was fun."
Ever the dogged reporter, Rosen pressed Barzal about any budding NHL rivalries, especially since Barzal's Islanders team would now be facing beefed up New York area teams. The New York Rangers added top goal scorer Artemi Panarin as a free agent while the New Jersey Devils traded for the aforementioned Subban plus drafted Team USA phenom Jack Hughest No. 1 overall in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft in June.
Barzal conceded that, yes, playing in Madison Square Garden for the first time was a "I'm in the NHL" wakeup call and, yes, the triangle rivalry of Islanders-Rangers-Devils was going to heat up during the 2019-20 season.
Hmmm. Comparing Seattle-Everett-Portland to Islanders-Rangers-Devils. Like it.
While Lundqvist dazzled any and all interviewers (NHL Seattle at the top of the list) with his polished, genuine answers about playing goal for his upcoming 15th NHL season, O'Reilly would win the NHL Player Media Tour version of the People's Choice award. He toured the media stops at both the Chicago Blackhawks' training complex on the city's near west side and a downtown hotel to talk about, among other things, the league's tradition of affording each player on the title team a day with the Stanley Cup.
For his day, O'Reilly, traded to St. Louis last July and in June the playoffs MVP, took North America's oldest original team trophy (only one actual trophy, folks) to small hometown, Varna, Ontario. His first stop? Driving that hardware straight to his 99-year-old grandma's house. Tears ensued.
The league's Player Media Tour (co-sponsored by the NHL Players Association) was invented for a couple of September days like this. While O'Reilly smiled about his grandma, he admitted it took maybe two weeks to believe he and the Blues won the Cup-same goes for loyal St. Louis fans who waited 51 years for the city's first NHL ultimate victory. O'Reilly did say it first got real on the bench with two-plus minutes in a Stanley Cup Final Game 7 against Boston when he calculated that a three-goal lead was going to hold up.
Some players, like Kane and Toews, sat down to talk about the 10 year anniversary of winning their first Stanley Cup. Others, like Barzal, are ready to chase the Cup as soon as the puck hits the ice for the 2019-20 season.