During the craziness of this coronavirus-driven National Hockey League season, the Arizona Coyotes and St. Louis Blues just finished a strange seven-game, home-and-home series. It was historic, having never happened before during the NHL regular season and likely never to happen again.
The Coyotes came out of it with nine points to seven for the Blues, a club that won its first Stanley Cup in 2019, the last full season before COVID paused the NHL season last March 12. After resuming for the playoffs in August, the league awarded the Cup to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Edmonton bubble.
“We told our players before the season you’ve got to be flexible,” Arizona head coach Rick Tocchet said during Wednesday’s post-practice conference call. “You have taxi squad guys; they’ve got to be ready. The schedule-maker’s got to be ready. We’re asking players to be prepared for anything. This was unprecedented and now you move on.”
To Tocchet’s point, the NHL schedule-makers announced 29 re-slated games Tuesday after eight teams—six in a 10-day period—went down when the pandemic swept through what hockey people call “the room.” That’s the dressing room, where players live and breathe as they prepare for practices and games.
This week, three more games had to be postponed in Dallas, this time because of the winter weather and power outages sweeping across Texas.
Because of COVID, the abbreviated 56-game season is an anomaly anyway. The 31 teams are separated into four regional divisions, with competition limited to within each division. To further restrict travel, teams are hosting back-to-back games against the same visiting team for the first time.
“That’s the way the league is right now,” Blues coach Craig Berube said after his club dropped a tense 1-0 Presidents’ Day affair to the Coyotes Monday in the series finale at Gila River Arena. “Don’t look into it any more than that.”
The Coyotes opened their first extended road trip on Feb. 2 in St. Louis with a pair of games slated for Enterprise Center. What was supposed to follow was two at Colorado, and two at Minnesota, before returning home to Gila River for two more against the Blues. The Avalanche and Wild then had to take a pause because of the coronavirus, and that set the NHL into motion.
Suddenly, the schedule was adjusted to include four games in St. Louis and three in Arizona, seven in a row between the two teams during a two-week span.
“I just think both teams adapted to it well, especially our team,” Tocchet said. “We were in St. Louis. We were supposed to [move on], and an hour later, ‘Hey we’re staying. We’re going to play.’ The schedule changed a whole bunch of different times, and we did a great job of adapting.”
The NHL has been adapting on the fly all season. Because of COVID, the popular annual outdoor stadium and ballpark games were canceled, replaced by a pair of al fresco contests this weekend on a makeshift rink without fans on the shores of Lake Tahoe. On Saturday, it’s the Avalanche taking on the Vegas Golden Knights, and Sunday it’s the Philadelphia Flyers against the Boston Bruins. Three of those four teams—save the Bruins—already have been knocked down by COVID.
Thus far, the league has allowed a limited number of fans to attend games in Florida, Dallas and Arizona. Tampa’s Amalie Arena is beginning a phase-in approach for hockey and basketball games. The NBA’s Toronto Raptors were moved to Tampa this season because of immigration issues at the Canadian border and are in the same phase-in process.
Because of a change in health and safety protocols in New York State, stadiums and arenas will be allowed to fill to 10% capacity by the end of the month. The New York Rangers will host about 2,000 fans at Madison Square Garden, beginning with the Feb. 26 game against the Bruins. The same for the NBA’s New York Knicks.
By contrast, the New York Islanders haven’t announced any plans to allow people—about a maximum 1,400—to attend games at the antiquated Nassau Coliseum. There are sanitizing and air flow issues to be dealt with, and each fan must test negative for COVID in the days before an event at any New York venue.
“I don’t think you can assume anything. There’s a lot that has to be done,” Islanders president and GM Lou Lamoriello said. “You know what is going to be necessary for the fans to be able to come in and what they will have to go through. There are certainly a lot of questions unanswered. I don’t feel anyone should put a date on it.”
The Devils haven’t been told yet by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy when fans will be allowed to attend games at Newark’s Prudential Center.
For the Coyotes, seven of their future games were part of the 29 recently reshuffled by the NHL, and for the first time this past Saturday they sold seats in the upper bowl at Gila River and drew a season-high 3,237. That will occur on an intermittent basis with all upstairs tickets priced at $25. The Yotes are on an uncommon 11-out-of-12-game homestand, which continues with tilts against the Los Angeles Kings Thursday and Saturday. When they hit the road again on March 8, only 11 of 28 games will remain on their home schedule.
The St. Louis showdown was a learning experience, Tocchet said.
“It was a small sample of the playoffs we just saw. There was a little of everything in that series,” he said. “There were momentum swings. There were a couple of fights. Six-on five goals, overtime goals. There was a smorgasbord of all that kind of stuff. It was a small dose, but it was a great learning lesson for our team.”
About the seven-game series, he added: “I don’t know if we’ll see this again in our lifetime. I don’t know. I guess you have to be ready for anything these days.”