The world has never seen a year like 2020. Neither has hockey.
The year started with Team Canada earning a 4-3 come-from-behind win over Russia in the final of the World Junior Championships. From there, we saw some magic from Connor McDavid, a Zamboni driver putting on the pads to get in the net, a sudden shutdown of the season, an unusually amicable negotiation between the NHL and NHLPA, a bubble, a Stanley Cup Final in August, and fans yearning for the day when they can someday return to the rink and, well, be fans.
So let’s take a dive into the most unusual calendar year in the history of hockey.
Team Canada Wins Gold
We begin in the Czech Republic.
The World Junior Hockey Championship (WJC) final saw Canada and Russia battle in another classic. Earlier in the tournament, Russia handed Canada a 6-0 defeat. It was the most lopsided loss for Canada in WJC history.
In the third period, there was no reason to believe Russia would not cruise to a gold medal. They led Canada 3-1 with just 11 minutes to go. But Canada reached deep into its inner-Jordan Eberle and mounted a comeback.
The golden goal came from the stick of Akil Thomas. He chased down a puck that had been chipped off the glass, went to his backhand, and scored with 3:58 left to play.
The tournament gave many fans a chance to see a crop of 2020 draft picks that included WJC MVP Alexis Lafreniere and Quinton Byfield of Canada, Tim Stuetzle of Germany and goalie Yaroslav Askarov of Russia.
On Jan. 6, Connor McDavid scored what was arguably the best goal of the 2020-21 season. He completely undressed Toronto defenceman Morgan Rielly and then went top shelf on Leaf goalie Michael Hutchinson. Sadly for Rielly, he did everything he should have on the play.
But sometimes, even when you are fundamentally sound, you can still get posterized by a player with McDavid’s skill level.
Kane is Able
On Jan. 19, Patrick Kane earned a secondary assist on a goal by Brandon Saad to become the 10th American player to reach 1,000 career points. He currently sits ninth in scoring among American players – we won’t say U.S.-born because Brett Hull was born in Canada – and by the end of the 2020-21 season, he will likely sit in fifth place among American scoring leaders. Hull leads with 1,391 points, followed by Mike Modano (1,374), Phil Housely (1,232) and Jeremy Roenick (1,216).
Leafs Legend Glennie Mourned
A Toronto Maple Leafs legend passed away on Feb. 7.
Brian Glennie was a longtime Leaf who was known as a hard checking, physical defenceman. He was often paired with Borje Salming, and Glennie’s defensive prowess enabled his partner to excel at his offensive game.
Glennie, who was traded to the Los Angeles Kings for the final 18 games of his career, also played for Team Canada in the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union.
A Scare for Bouwmeester
The Honda Center in Anaheim was the scene of one of the most frightening things the hockey world saw in 2020.
St. Louis Blues defenceman Jay Bouwmeester finished a shift, skated to the bench, and collapsed. His heart had stopped beating. He was rushed to a local hospital. The game was halted after Bouwmeester’s cardiac episode, and both teams left the ice. The game was postponed midway into the first period.
The game was part of the Blues’ annual father-son trip. The players and fathers waited for news of Bouwmeester’s status for nearly two hours in the hallway outside the Blues’ dressing room.
Thankfully, Bouwmeester survived. Later that week, he had an implantable cardioverter defibrillator implanted in his chest.
David Ayres: The Zamboni Man Can!
You have probably heard the old joke about how someone went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.
On Feb. 22, about 20,000 Leafs fans went to a hockey game in Toronto and a Disney movie broke out.
In the NHL, each team is required to have an “emergency goalie” in the building in case both goalies dressed for one of the teams are injured. That rare scenario happened in Toronto, as both James Reimer and Peter Mrazek of the Carolina Hurricanes went down with injuries.
The designated emergency goalie, David Ayres, was sitting with his wife at the game and went down to the media room after Reimer’s injury. When Mrazek was injured, he started getting text messages to get ready. The Hurricanes equipment manager came in to get him and get him suited up.
One would assume that Ayres was a minor leaguer or a prospect. That was far from the case.
Ayres made his NHL debut as a 42-year-old Zamboni driver for the Leafs’ AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies. He is the operations manager at the Mattamy Athletic Centre, and he is the Leafs’ game-day practice goalie. If that isn’t Disney enough for you, consider that he received a kidney transplant at the age of 27 – his mom was the donor – and he has won two battles with skin cancer.
After letting in two goals on the first two shots he faced, Ayres stonewalled the Leafs. He stopped the next eight shots he faced and picked up the win as Carolina knocked off Toronto 6-3. In 29 minutes, Ayres posted a 4.18 goals-against average (GAA) and a save percentage (SV%) of .800. He became the oldest goalie ever to post his first NHL win.
Ayres received $500 and got to keep his jersey. For the next few weeks, his number 90 “Ayres” jersey was one of Carolina’s hottest sellers.
An Ugly AHL Fight
On Feb. 25, fans at an AHL game held their breath when Hershey Bears winger Kale Kessy was knocked out cold in a fight with Derek Sheppard of the Charlotte Checkers. Kessy fell and lost consciousness when his head hit the ice. Sheppard, while on one knee over Kessy, frantically motioned to the Hershey bench for help. Kessy was on the ice for about 10 minutes and regained consciousness before being taken off the ice in a stretcher and rushed to a Hershey hospital.
Kessy was released the next day, but the incident sparked an emotional debate on whether or not fighting should once and for all be removed from hockey.
Good-bye to the Pocket Rocket
Montreal Canadiens legend Henri Richard passed away on March 6.
“The Pocket Rocket” won 11 Stanley Cups with the Canadiens during his 20-year career. Among them was a string of five straight Cups from 1956-60, in which he played on a line with his older brother by 14 years, Maurice Richard.
The 5’7”, 160-pound Richard finished his career with 1,046 points, 80 points more than his goal-scoring brother Maurice accumulated. He was an NHL First Team All-Star once and a Second Team All-Star three times. He scored two memorable Stanley Cup-winning goals, netting the winner in Game 6 of the 1965-66 finals against Detroit, and in Game 7 of the finals against Chicago.
Walker Tries His Hand at Hockey
With Ayres already becoming an NHL legend, another legend, Larry Walker, wanted in on the action.
The Colorado Avalanche announced that the 53-year-old Baseball Hall of Famer would serve as the emergency goalie for the March 14 game in Denver between the Avalanche and the Vegas Golden Knights.
Walker, who grew up in Maple Ridge, BC, was a goalie growing up and had a tryout with the Western Hockey League’s Regina Pats. After being cut, Walker switched his focus to baseball and signed with the Montreal Expos as an undrafted free agent. Walker’s brother, Carey, was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens.
Unfortunately for Walker, the NHL season was shut down two days before he was scheduled to be the emergency goalie.
COVID-19 Shuts Down Hockey
The NHL paused its season due to the novel coronavirus pandemic March 12. The NWHL also postponed the Isobel Cup, while most league in Europe had already shut down.
The Ottawa Senators were the first team affected by the virus. Members of the organization, including radio colour commentator Gord Wilson, tested positive for COVID-19 after returning from a road trip to California. Two weeks later, the number of Senators players and staff infected rose to six.
McDavid Voted Best Player
The NHLPA released the results of its annual players’ voting poll at the end of March.
McDavid was voted as the best forward, receiving 68.3% of the votes. Sidney Crosby was second with 14.9% of the votes.
Victor Hedman was voted best defenceman with 37.9% of the votes while John Carlson was second with 21.3%.
Carey Price was voted best goaltender with 41.6% of the vote, well ahead of Andrei Vasilevskiy with 17.1%.
Crosby was voted the most complete player and the one player you would want on your team for one game. Brad Marchand was also tops in two polls. He was voted both the best trash talker and the worst trash talker.
Colby Cave Passing Shocks Edmonton
The hockey world mourned the passing of Edmonton Oilers forward Colby Cave on April 11.
Cave died after undergoing surgery to remove a colloid cyst that was causing pressure on his brain.
In three NHL seasons with Edmonton and Boston, Cave had four goals and five assists in 67 games.
Trump Wants Sports
President Donald Trump was on a conference call with all major sports commissioners, including NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. TSN’s Darren Dreger tweeted that also on the call were NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, as well as owners Mark Cuban, Jerry Jones and Robert Kraft.
Dreger reported that Bettman’s focus was on restarting sports with no fans, the availability of testing, and travel concerns.
Meanwhile, discussion began about the possibility of having 24 teams involved in a tournament-like format for the 2019-20 Stanley Cup finals.
Remembering Pat Stapleton and Tom Webster
The first defenceman to record 50 assists in an NHL season passed away on April 8.
Pat Stapleton, who played for Team Canada in the 1972 Summit Series, set an NHL record with 50 assists in the 1968-69 season. Bobby Orr would eclipse the record the following year with 70 assists.
Stapleton was a three-time NHL Second Team All-Star and helped the Chicago Blackhawks reach the Stanley Cup Final in 1971 and 1973. In both finals, the Blackhawks lost to Montreal.
The hockey world also lost Tom Webster, who was an NHL player, coach and longtime scout. Webster was seventh in career scoring in the WHA, with 220 goals and 205 assists for 425 points in 352 games over six seasons with the New England Whalers.
Sea Dogs Lose Lottery
In Quebec, an unusual dynasty was derailed as the St. John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL actually lost the league’s draft lottery. They had won it in six of the previous seven years. The Sea Dogs had a shot at the lottery after a trade with Baie-Comeau but had only a 9.5% chance of winning. The Gatineau Olympiques owned the three picks with the highest odds of winning. They won the lottery and will pick first, second and fourth, with St. John picking third.
PWHPA Announces New Structure
Following the success of its Dream Gap Tour, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association announced a new regional structure, operating teams in five locations. The teams are located in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, New Hampshire, and Minnesota.
Meanwhile, the National Women’s Hockey League announced that it would add its first Canadian team, awarding a franchise to Toronto.
Lafreniere QMJHL MVP
For the second year in a row, Rimouski Oceanic captain Lafreniere was named the winner of the Michel-Briere Trophy as the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Most Valuable Player.
Marco Rossi of the Ottawa 67’s was named the winner of the Ontario Hockey League’s Red Tilson Trophy as the league’s Most Outstanding Player. The Austrian center led both the OHL and the Canadian Hockey League in scoring with 39 goals and 81 assists for 120 points in just 53 games.
Adam Beckman of the Spokane Chiefs won the Four Broncos Memorial Trophy as the Western Hockey League’s MVP. The third-round draft pick of the Minnesota Wild collected 107 points in 63 games.
NHL Announces Playoff Plan
The NHL announced its plans for both the playoffs and the draft lottery. There would be a 24-team tournament with 16 teams participating in a “play-in” round. The games would take place in two “bubbles”, with the cities to be determined. The teams losing in the play-in round would be included in the lottery.
Brian Burke played the role of Nostradamus on NHL Network Radio after the announcement, saying that the draft was meant to help the worst teams in the league rebuild. He predicted that a playoff-level team would win the franchise player, Lafreniere, available in the draft.
Back-to-back for Lafreniere
The Canadian Hockey League announced that Lafreniere was the winner of the David Branch CHL Player of the Year Award.
Lafreniere had 112 points in 52 games for the Rimouski Oceanic of the QMJHL. He beat out Rossi and Beckman for the award. He joins fellow former Oceanic captain Sidney Crosby as the only two players to win the award twice.
Iginla Headed to Hall
Jarome Iginla headlined the Hockey Hall of Fame’s announcement of its 2020 inductees.
The timing of the announcement was significant. The NHL has been battling a problem of prejudice against minority players for years. Iginla, whose father is from Nigeria, spent 16 of his 21 NHL seasons with the Calgary Flames. In 1,554 games, he had 625 goals and 675 assists for 1,300 points.
Marian Hossa also got into the Hall on his first time on the ballot. The Slovakian winger spent 18 years in the NHL, including seven in Chicago and six in Ottawa. In 1,309 games, he scored 525 goals and had 609 assists for 1,134 points. He won three Stanley Cups in his career.
Another former Blackhawk, Doug Wilson, also got the nod from the Hall. Wilson spent 16 years with the Blackhawks and two with the San Jose Sharks and had 827 career points. The former Norris Trophy winner was the first captain in Sharks’ history.
Kevin Lowe of the Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the 1980s was also voted into the Hall. Lowe played for 19 seasons, spending 15 in Edmonton before going to the New York Rangers for four. Although known as a defensive defenceman, he did have 432 career points in his career. Lowe won six Stanley Cups as a player.
Goalie Kim St. Pierre of the Canadian Women’s National Team was also selected for the Hall of Fame. She backstopped Canada to three Olympic gold medals and five World Women’s Championships. While playing for Canada, she had a career GAA of 1.17 and a .939 SV%.
Ken Holland, the GM who was the architect of the Red Wings dynasty in the early 2000s, was also voted into the Hall. He won four Stanley Cups as GM and was also a part of several Team Canada management groups.
Clear the Track, Here Comes Shack
Hockey lost one of the most colorful and entertaining personalities of all time as Eddie Shack passed away at the age of 83.
The flamboyant star played 17 seasons in the NHL with the Rangers, Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings, Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Shack won four Stanley Cups with the Leafs and scored the Cup-winning goal in Game 5 of the 1963 Stanley Cup Final against Detroit.
NHL, NHLPA Reach Agreement
After eerily peaceful negotiating, the NHL and NHLPA agreed on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Not only did the NHL’s Gary Bettman and the NHLPA’s Donald Fehr bring stability into the game, but they also excited hockey fans everywhere with the announcement that NHL players would once again be able to represent their respective countries at the Winter Olympics.
Seattle Team Named the Kraken
The new NHL team in Seattle unveiled its name.
The Seattle Kraken will begin play in the 2021-22 NHL season. The primary logo features a green tentacle shaped like an ‘S’. The secondary logo on the shoulders has an anchor with the iconic Seattle Space Needle worked into the design. The home uniforms feature four shades of blue – “deep sea”, “ice”. “shadow” and “boundless” – with a red stripe.
Play began in the NHL bubble cities of Edmonton and Toronto.
In Toronto, there was a Tim Hortons truck parked outside the Royal York and the Hotel Ex with bubble access only. Players and NHL personnel could get free coffee, food and whatever they wanted from the truck throughout the duration of the playoffs.
Pathways were created in the tunnels under Front Street in Toronto from the Royal York with public access from fans blocked off. Players could opt to take bus transportation to the arena or make the 5-10 minute walk.
There rotating digital billboard along the Gardiner Expressway which runs downtown along Lake Ontario featured Philadelphia Flyers mascot Gritty. By late in the afternoon, there was also a Seattle Kraken image.
Between periods, a crew came out and to sanitize the benches, penalty boxes and common areas shared by players and officials.
Instead of lining up at their respective bluelines, teams stood together in a boy-girl-boy-girl format as a sign of solidarity among players re racial injustice.
CBC/SportsNet broadcaster Elliott Friedman drew attention for his beard. He appeared to be the missing link between Joe Thornton and Brent Burns of the Sharks.
The Chicago-Edmonton game on NBC made broadcasting history. Pierre Maguire was at the arena sitting in the stands behind the benches. Doc Emerick called the play by play from his home in Michigan while Eddie Olczyk did the color from the studio in Connecticut. It was the first live broadcast in multiple remote locations in NHL history.
On the ice, the big story of the play-in round was how the 24th ranked Montreal Canadiens rode the goaltending of Price and bounced the heavily-favored Pittsburgh Penguins. That upset triggered panic that the stacked Penguins might land Lafreniere in the draft.
Also triggering draft panic was the Blackhawks’ upset win over the Edmonton Oilers. That loss brought heartbreak in Edmonton, but fear everywhere else that Lafreniere would join Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and create another Oilers dynasty.
When the “real” playoffs started, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning tangled in one of the longest games in NHL history, needing five overtimes to be settled. The length of the game forced the cancellation of the second game of the doubleheader in Toronto. Carolina and Boston were forced to move their game to the next afternoon.
Hawerchuk a Winnipeg Jets Icon
Hockey Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk lost his battle with cancer and passed away at the age of 57. The longtime Winnipeg Jet held the franchise records for goals (379) and points (929) before they were eclipsed by Shane Doan. Hawerchuk was the first overall pick in the 1981 NHL Draft, and he won the Calder Trophy in 1981-82 with 103 points as a rookie.
Tuukka Rask Goes Home
Boston goalie Tuukka Rask was the first big name to bail out of the bubble.
After some lackluster play early in the playoffs, Rask went home. He said playing with no fans felt like exhibition hockey. While Rask was criticized by fans for the decision, NESN broadcaster Dale Arnold revealed that he received a text message from Rask citing a family emergency as the reason he left the bubble.
The Arizona Coyotes were penalized for violating the NHL’s Combine Testing Policy. The team’s rebuilding plan took a step backward as they lost their second-round pick in 2020 and their first-round pick in 2021.
The Hockey Diversity Alliance brought NHL players together in a stand against racism. Four games in the second round of the playoffs were postponed and rescheduled. It was an act of solidarity and support for the NHL players, and they were fully supported by the NHL and its clubs.
Bobby Ryan Wins Masterton
Bobby Ryan of the Ottawa Senators was the winner of the Masterton Trophy. Ryan left the Senators early in the season to enter into a rehab facility for alcohol abuse. He returned to the team clean and sober and became an inspiration to players and fans around the league.
The Dallas Stars went on a Cinderella run to knock off the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights to reach the Stanley Cup Final. The Lightning, meanwhile, had a big challenge from another Cinderella team, the New York Islanders.
The Lightning would win the Stanley Cup in six games behind talent, grit, and productive depth that went four lines deep. Brayden Point scored five goals in six games, and Kevin Shattenkirk netted two game winners.
Joe Pavelski was the top scorer for Dallas, but the player who emerged as a star – no pun intended – was defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The youngster was impressive at both ends of the ice and on special teams. He averaged 26:52 of ice time in the series to lead Dallas.
Matt Murray a Sensational Acquisition
The Senators showed their fans that they were serious about their rebuild by acquiring Stanley Cup-winning goalie Matt Murray from Pittsburgh.
Murray would be joined by free-agent signings Evgeny Dadonov, Erik Gudbranson and Alex Galchenyuk.
Rangers Select Lafreniere
The Rangers, who won the draft lottery, selected Lafreniere first overall in the NHL Draft. The Kings selected Byfield second, while Ottawa picked German uberstar Tim Stuetzle with the third pick, acquired from San Jose in the Erik Karlsson trade. Detroit, who finished last in the 2019-20 season, fell by three spots in the lottery and selected Swedish scoring sensation Lucas Raymond. The Senators used their first-round pick, fifth overall, to take the top-ranked defenceman in the draft. They selected Jake Sanderson, who is the son of former NHL star Geoff Sanderson.
Coyotes Renounce Draft Pick
The Coyotes, already penalized in the 2020 and 2021 drafts for a cheating scandal, renounced the rights to their top pick, Mitch Miller. Selected 111th overall, Miller had admitted in Ohio juvenile court that he had bullied Isiah Meyer-Crothers, a Black, disabled classmate. Miller was also dismissed from the University of North Dakota hockey team.
Travis Roy Passes Away
On Oct. 29, just nine days after the 25th anniversary of his injury, Roy passed away. He played hockey for Boston University. Just 11 seconds into his first-ever NCAA shift, Roy went hard into the boards and was paralyzed from the neck down. He dedicated his life to helping others with spinal cord injuries through the Travis Roy Foundation.
Meeker Was a Hockey Legend
Before Don Cherry, there was Howie Meeker. The former Toronto Maple Leaf and Hockey Night in Canada broadcaster passed away at the age of 97 on Nov. 8. Meeker won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in the 1946-47 season. On Jan. 8, 1947, he set a rookie record by scoring five goals against the Blackhawks. He won four Stanley Cups with the Leafs.
Also passing away in November was former Ranger and Penguin Ken Schinkel, and the one of the first indigenous players in NHL, Fred Saskamoose.
No Hockey Yet, But at Least We Have Cards!
Fans in Canada starved for hockey in November got a bit of an emotional outlet as Tim Hortons launched its annual Upper Deck Hockey card promotion. Upper Deck included a redemption card in the promotion to give fans a chance to get the first NHL hockey card of first overall draft pick Lafreniere.
Team Canada’s evaluation camp for the World Junior Championship hit an obstacle when two players tested positive for COVID-19. The tests led to the two-week quarantine of several staff members.
The National Women’s Hockey League announced that it would play its 2020-21 season and Isobel Cup playoffs in a two-week bubble in Lake Placid, NY. The event was scheduled for Jan. 23 to Feb. 5. The league’s six teams – the Boston Pride, Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan Riveters, Minnesota Whitecaps and Toronto Six – will play a round-robin schedule. Four teams will reach the semi-finals. The Isobel Cup championship game will be played on Feb. 5.
All of the games will be broadcast on Twitch.tv.
NHL Announces Puck Drop for 2020-21 Season
It took a lot of figuring out and a lot of negotiating, but the NHL and NHLPA agreed that the 2020-21 season would begin Jan. 13, 2021.
The league will be realigned for one season only into four divisions. Because of travel restrictions, all Canadian teams will play in the North Division. There will be no interdivisional play.
Canada Opens With 16-2 Win
The World Junior Championships got underway in Alberta. While all eyes in Ottawa were on Germany’s Tim Stuetzle, the Canadian team pounded the Germans 16-2 on Boxing Day.
Former Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist announced that he will be undergoing open-heart surgery and will miss the 2020-21 season. Lundqvist was signed by the Washington Capitals as a free agent. He spent 15 seasons with the Rangers.
Hoffman Singing the Blues
Mike Hoffman was among the last of the big free agents to find a home. He signed a professional tryout contract with the Blues. The Capitals added veteran depth as they signed goalie Craig Anderson and defenceman Zdeno Chara.
While 2020 was crazy and nobody saw it unfolding as it did, the 2020-21 season will be a welcomed distraction for hockey fans everywhere.
And we can’t wait until the day when talking about masks refers to something Itech makes instead of something you would wear in a line-up for toilet paper and supplies at Costco or at a hospital.
Jeff Morris has been a hockey writer for more than 30 years. He began his career working for small town newspapers in Eastern Ontario before becoming the editor of Canadian Sports Collector magazine in St. Catharines, ON. While there, he also freelanced as a Buffalo Sabres beat writer. Morris would move on to Dallas to become the NHL brand manager at Pinnacle Brands, Inc. From there, he worked in the sports trading card and collectibles division at Shop At Home TV in Nashville and Denver, and then moved to Seattle to be the VP of Marketing at Pacific Trading Cards, Inc. in Seattle. He had continued to cover the NHL as a freelance writer, and while in Seattle, he became a weekly hockey columnist for ESPN.com. During the 2005 NHL lockout, he returned to Ottawa and became a newspaper and magazine publisher and editor, and was also an NHL contributor for Fox Sports Radio. He also began covering the NHL for Hockeyology.com, and also covered the Ottawa Senators for his own publications. He went to Carleton University to study journalism, and graduated as the school’s all-time scoring leader in football and was a conference all-star three times. He had several pro tryouts and played semi-pro football for 10 years while pursuing his career as an NHL writer. He remains involved in football as a coach and referee, and is a Canadian Football League off-field official.