Canada’s NHL teams embrace return to normal divisions
TORONTO — Tyler Toffoli had just filled the net on back-to-back nights against his former team.
The Montreal winger registered a hat trick in a 6-5 shootout loss to Vancouver and followed that up with two goals and an assist 24 hours later in a 7-3 victory.
Toffoli then spent a day off mostly alone in his hotel room because of COVID-19 restrictions before yet another meeting with the Canucks inside an empty Rogers Arena.
“The first game I was like, ‘This is funny,’” he told the Canadian Press. “The second game, I was like, ‘OK.’ And then by the time we played in them a (third) time in a row, it was: ‘I don’t want to see you guys anymore.’ I’m like, ‘This is ridiculous.’”
Montreal would win that matchup 5-2 ahead of its journey back east, but scenarios similar to that January road trip would be repeated again and again across the North Division. Compressed schedules, the same opponents, long flights, no fans and plenty of time spent alone.
“Honestly, probably the hardest (season) mentally,” Toffoli said.
The NHL changed all of its divisions for 2020-21 — a season shortened to 56 games — with the aim of cutting travel and potential COVID-19 exposure. The league’s 24 U.S. teams were mostly clustered regionally in three self-contained circuits, and many saw fans eventually return in significant numbers once vaccines started to roll out.
That was not the case in Canada, where the seven teams played across four time zones and thousands of miles because of coronavirus border rules related to non-essential travel.
The one-and-done North Division is now just a memory, though players won’t soon forget it.
“Just nonstop hockey every day,” Toronto star Auston Matthews said. “If we had two days between games, it was almost like a vacation.”
Edmonton defenseman Darnell Nurse said there were some difficult moments, but they paled in comparison to what was happening across society.
“We are some of the few people that had some type of normalcy within our lives,” he said. “I’m going to look back and say, ‘It was a tough time, for sure. But there’s nothing really we can complain about.’”
Vancouver goalie Thatcher Demko, whose team suffered through a massive COVID-19 outbreak, called it “hopefully the hardest hockey season that I’ll have to play.”
“I’ll tell some stories down the line of what that season actually looked like,” he said. “Hopefully my kids won’t believe me because it’ll sound so outrageous at that point. It was crazy.”
Ottawa defenseman Thomas Chabot said one of the pluses was getting to play in an all-Canadian division — a unique experience that harkened back to the NHL’s Original Six.
“It would have been fun with fans,” he said. “It was a different year, it was a different experience, but at least we got to play.”
At the same time, Toronto winger Mitch Marner said the restrictions made it difficult to bond with teammates.
“There were rules about playing cards, sitting at tables,” he said. “You had to sit with certain people. You really had to find other ways to be personal.”
Marner said the Maple Leafs — and this would no doubt apply to the Senators and Canadiens — had difficulty adjusting to the travel compared to what they’re used to in the Eastern Conference.
“We would have to go to Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary, some of those places a day before the games,” he said. “It’s a five-hour flight and then it’s a two- or three-hour time change. That affected you differently.”
Winnipeg center Mark Scheifele said he gained a new appreciation for little moments that make an NHL season enjoyable.
“Getting to see your family and friends, having them come and visit you ... fans in the building,” he said. “The smallest little thing that you might take for granted, I think it gives you a new perspective.”
Matthews said despite the numerous challenges, that pandemic regular season is one that will stick.
“The year where COVID happened and all the restrictions and playing only in Canada ... I’ll look back on it as being kind of cool,” Matthews said. “Not many guys can say that. It was different ... we made the most of it.”