For many people, the beginning of the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic, where we were all confined to our homes in quarantine, meant trying new hobbies to pass the time effectively while staying inside.
Some got into baking or took up a new language or tried their hand at gardening when we weren’t in front of a laptop screen Zooming with friends and family or working from home, and it was a nice distraction from the labors and burdens of reality.
For me, watching live sports was always my escape. It’s the ultimate real-life reality TV show. The unpredictability and drama with fans and cities holding allegiances are absolutely thrilling in every way; it’s a pleasant conversation-starter that unites us all as people when we root for the storylines, the individuals on the team, and the histories. There are few things I find more beautiful than that, and all of the key pieces coming together to create a winning formula together is just plain awesome.
When the planet shut down, and sports went on hold, I lost that distraction. I no longer had that distraction. It was tough on my mental state, and we had no idea how long we would be without a thrilling touchdown or a walk-off home run, given the state the world was in.
One day, Sportscenter played a highlight of a hockey goal on TV, and I remember thinking to myself, “Man, I would do anything to watch a hockey game right now,” despite never having followed or watched hockey in my life. Being a Texas native, football is king, summer days are 100 degrees every year, and the only snow that falls if it does happen is just the sloshy ice that makes the road bad but not bad enough for you to miss school.
On top of that, all of the major sports media outlets in the area seem to be more concerned with analyzing NBA player tweets than providing NHL highlights. So, not exactly a hockey hotbed.
However, on May 26th, the NHL announced a return-to-play plan to finish up their season with a playoff in bubble hub cities; it was a live sport that was making a comeback.
“This is going to be my learning experience,” I said to myself. I knew nothing about the NHL, but I was so hungry for something to root for, something to put my heart into, some sort of positive news during the desperate times, that I decided to invest myself in the game. The return wouldn’t officially happen until August 1st, so until then, I needed to study. I read articles and books about the in’s and out’s of the game and the stats, the NHL as a league, the teams and their identities, the rosters and players to follow, the team histories, and I watched videos and even played the NHL video games. I couldn’t believe I had gone so long without following a game so beautiful (again, I blame geography).”
The bubble postseason that the NHL brought back on August 1st truly saved my sanity. The first game I watched on that August 1st return date was just as exciting as I had romanticized it after the months of waiting for it to arrive finally; it was like the gates of a new utopia had finally been opened up after having to wait outside in the cold. It was executed to perfection in their bubble hubs with their safety protocols resulting in no positive tests. It was far from normal, but it gave us hope. The league put together a product together, and the cooperation made it seem as moving forward was possible.
I loved absolutely all of it. I loved the electric scoring on the eventual champion Tampa Bay Lightning from guys like Brayden Point and Patrick Maroon, the beautiful passing and teamwork on a team like the Vancouver Canucks who move with ease through Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat, the inspiring youth of the Colorado Avalanche, and the gritty “enforcer” players not afraid to drop the gloves for their teams like Ryan Reaves of the Golden Knights or Matthew Tkachuk of the Flames. The variety of players, narratives, and teams’ styles of play truly captured my heart in a postseason we’ll likely never have again.
Now, it’s 2021, and the upcoming season will be upon us on January 13th under yet another different set of circumstances.
It’ll be a 56 game season with 4 geographically-based divisions (including an all-Canadian division that will be ELECTRIC) and the top 4 teams from them advancing to a 16-team postseason.
Similarly to the MLB’s return format for their shortened season, the teams will only play the members of their division, and while that may eliminate the opportunity for some juicy rivalry matchups, playing the same teams so much could result in the budding of new rivalries (and potentially an increase in fights. These guys are going to be sick of each other by the end of the season.).
We’ll get to see the Ovechkin-Crosby rivalry in Washington-Pittsburgh EIGHT TIMES in the East division. The two Stanley Cup finalists, Dallas and Tampa are in the same division together in the Central. Connor McDavid taking on Auston Matthews 10 times in the North? Sign me up.
Despite the unforeseen circumstances surrounding this year, one thing is for certain: I’ll be ready for it.
I may not be able to attend a game shoulder-to-shoulder next to other passionate fans yet, but I have hockey to thank for being the highlight of my 2020, and the 2021 season will be an unforgettable thrill.
Featured Image: Canadian Press/eckvilleecho.com