In one way, the National Hockey League returns to normal this season, with divisions organized by geography rather than the all-Canadian division fans saw last year when COVID-19 dictated emergency policy revisions.
But a totally normal season? Hardly.
The 2021-22 campaign gets underway this week, but there are still a number of question marks hanging over the 32-team league which features the arrival of the newest expansion team, the Seattle Kraken.
For instance, the league schedule currently includes a two-week gap from Feb. 5-22 to allow for NHL players to take part in the Olympics in Beijing, China.
But here we are, a mere four months from the start of the Games, and the NHL Players’ Association still hasn’t decided officially to take part. Why? COVID, of course.
The NHLPA is leaving its options open. If the COVID situation looks palatable, the players will take part and the NHL schedule will pause for two-plus weeks.
If the players decide the health situation in China is going to be a problem, they are reserving the right to forego the Olympic Games, and stay in their North American confines. The NHL would then rearrange the schedule to fill in that two-week gap.
Meanwhile, the Kraken kick off their official existence with a game in Las Vegas Oct. 12, the first of five straight on the road, and play their home opener Oct. 23 against the Canucks, who are destined to become the new team’s No. 1 rival.
Considering the tremendous success the Golden Knights had in their first season, reaching the Stanley Cup final, it won’t be a surprise if the Kraken are competitive right off the hop.
Old, established divisional rivalries resume, which means Toronto, Montreal, Boston and defending Cup champion Tampa Bay will see plenty of each other this year.
Winnipeg Jets are back in the same division as St. Louis, Dallas, Nashville and Minnesota, while the Oilers and Flames will do battle once again with the Canucks, Sharks, Kings, Vegas, etc., as well as the Kraken.
Will this be the year Connor McDavid leads the Oilers to Cup glory?
Will Cole Caufield continue his blistering playoff pace and become a 50-goal man for the Habs?
Will last year’s rookie of the year, Kirill Kaprizov, become the most explosive player in the game?
Can two-time Cup champ Tampa keep rolling?
Will Nathan McKinnon and the Avalanche break through?
Thanks to Auston Matthews, is this finally the Leafs’ year?
So many questions, with the answers to roll out over the next seven or eight months.
• From Hockey Beast, on Facebook: “After the Boston Bruins won the 1970 Stanley Cup, Wayne Cashman got drunk, stepped out into an intersection, started to direct traffic, got arrested, and used his one phone call to order Chinese food.”
• Golf writer Geoff Shackleford, on the evolution of the PGA Tour: “The PGA Tour, ever desperate to lower the average viewer demographic from 65, became a wannabe lifestyle brand where you come, hold up your phones, get drunk and are as much a part of the action as the players.”
• Janice Hough of leftcoastsportsbabe.com: “The New York Jets and New York Giants are a combined 0-6 to open the season. Fortunately I am sure the New York media will be gentle and understanding about this.”
• Comedy writer Brad Dickson of Omaha: “Snoop Dogg will be the Super Bowl halftime performer. Which answers the age old question: Do the halftime performers need to pass a drug test? No.”
• Steve Simmons of Sun Media: “Money isn’t everything: The Blue Jays paid just $4.1 million this season for (Vladimir) Guerrero, (Bo) Bichette, Jordan Romano, Tim Mayza, Alek Manoah, Danny Jansen, and Alejandro Kirk. That could be close to $100 million in the future.”
• Brad Dickson again: “The Fox Sports guy said one of the Husker receivers ‘has suffered from anxiety and depression.’ So he knows what it’s like to be a Husker fan.”
• Headline at fark.com: “Bears head coach decides kickoff on Sunday night might be the ideal time to decide which of his quarterbacks will start the game.”
• Dwight Perry of the Seattle Times: “ Cowboys tackle La’el Collins — who missed seven scheduled drug tests — was given a five-game suspension for trying to bribe the NFL collector who came to take his sample, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. He was hoping they’d let him off with an illegal-procedure penalty.”
• Retired sportswriter Greg Johns, via Facebook, after Seattle beat the Athletics for the 12th straight time: “Now that the Mariners own the A’s, are they responsible for building a new stadium in Oakland?”
• NFL guru Dan Daly, via Twitter: “Amazing how many NFL teams are trying to develop young QBs with train-wreck offensive lines. Can’t decide if it’s child abuse or just malpractice.”
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By Bruce Penton