Game same but experience different

EDMONTON — It looked like a typical NHL game, complete with the blazing speed, crisp passes and sizzling shots we’ve come to expect from the best pro players on the planet. Global pandemic or not, that’s not changing any time soon.

But it sure didn’t feel like one from my perch high above the ice at Rogers Place on Wednesday night, where the Winnipeg Jets downed the Vancouver Canucks 4-1 in an exhibition tune-up prior to this weekend’s start of the most unique Stanley Cup playoffs in history.

As one of just a handful of writers across North America granted access to watch the action in-person, let me say two things: It’s great to have hockey back. And this is going to take some getting used to.

The last time I was in this building was exactly 20 weeks ago to the day, which turned out to be the final night of the 2019-20 regular season. It feels closer to 20 years given all that’s changed since.

There were more than 18,000 fans in the seats that night watching the Jets beat Connor McDavid’s crew. On Wednesday, there were zero, a grim reminder that we’re still a long way from “normal” despite the long-awaited return of the NHL.

Their absence was especially noticeable as the Jets hit the ice to the familiar, albeit pre-recorded introduction from longtime PA announcer Jay Richardson, only to be met by complete silence, save for a few “Let’s go boys!” and “Whoooos” that could be heard loud and clear.

When Tucker Poolman opened the scoring late in the first period — and who had the stay-at-home Jets defenceman as the one to break the club’s four-and-a-half month scouring “drought”? — every single celebratory F-bomb was apparent.

There’s a good reason broadcast networks have added a five-second delay, along with artificial crowd sweeteners from the EA Sports video game franchise. Otherwise, the CRTC would be having a field day over the next couple months.

But if you can tolerate some colourful language, the natural sounds of the game in all their glory were a highlight. From hearing skates squeak with every hard stop, players calling for passes or warning teammates from the bench about an incoming opponent, to your run-of-the-mill lobbying for penalties and complaining to officials, this is the type of stuff normally drowned out by big crowds.

If I’m in charge of the TV presentation, I’d be finding a way to maximize that for viewers at home.

Another fun touch is the NHL’s attempt to make the designated home team feel like they’re in their own building. From Richardson’s voice to the usual mix of Bell MTS Place music to the familiar goal horn, it seems like no detail was missed — unless you’re a fan of the “True North” shout during the anthem, which was not included.

I’m told by league officials this was only the start. Other bells and whistles are being saved for when the games start to count on Saturday night, and the large video screens set up in the stands will be put to good use.

Might we see a virtual Jets “Whiteout” happen? I wouldn’t bet against it.

Outside the rink, it was hard to escape the reality that this pandemic is far from over, with Alberta announcing 133 new cases and three new deaths on Wednesday. Overall, they have 1,430 active cases in the province, prompting Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw to declare “the curve is no longer flat in Alberta.”

Of course, you’d never know it inside the secure bubble environment created for all 12 Western Conference clubs here in Edmonton, and a similar set-up for Eastern teams in Toronto, which includes rigorous health and safety protocols and daily testing. So far, so good, with not a single positive case in the league in more than a week. Keeping the virus out is the key to keeping hockey going.

As for the game-day experience, one big bonus was that the drive to Rogers Place was a breeze. No fans in the stands = no traffic. Across the street from the beautiful downtown barn, Mercer Tavern would normally be buzzing, especially on a gorgeous game-day where the temperature topped 30 C. Instead, I only counted a handful of people sitting on the patio, and none of them were wearing hockey jerseys.

Normally I’m the one asking questions when I go to a rink, but the roles were reversed. Using an online health pass obtained through the league’s partnership with the security company Clear, I could only get inside once I confirmed I was symptom-free, hadn’t travelled abroad within the past 14 days and haven’t been around anyone with COVID-19. A quick temperature check later and I was being escorted to a makeshift press box, which is actually one floor below the usual one.

That area is being reserved for those inside the NHL’s secure bubble, such as the TV broadcast crew and NHL staff. The handful of us independent media, which included just one other Winnipeg scribe and a couple from Vancouver, were on the second tier.

Other noticeable changes to routine include a morning skate held in private, with writers not allowed to attend, and post-game interviews done via Zoom despite being in the same building as the players. Face-to-face access is not permitted at this point, so all scrums are being done online.

As for the game itself, one thing remained constant — Connor Hellebuyck is very, very good. He stopped 37 shots to lead his team to victory. The only puck that beat him was during a goal-mouth scramble with just over six minutes left in the third period.

Nikolaj Ehlers, Dmitry Kulikov and Blake Wheeler, into an empty net, had the other Winnipeg goals.

Prior to puck drop, the Jets and Canucks gathered around centre ice in what the teams described as an act of “solidarity in support of all front-line workers and against acts of racism and acts of hate.”

The Jets will take today off, then have one final practice on Friday before the best-of-five series against Calgary begins Saturday night.

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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