Remember the 2020 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic? How 85,630 people, the second-largest crowd in NHL history, crammed into the Cotton Bowl to watch the Dallas Stars play the Nashville Predators? How it was like a rodeo with bull riders, rope twirlers and even pig races?
Seems like forever ago, an innocent age before the coronavirus. It has been a long year.
But looking back at 2020, a certain spirit defined the NHL amid all the adversity, and it started at the Winter Classic.
The ice was ruined by warm, rainy weather five days before the event. About 15 minutes after the rain stopped, the crewmen started rebuilding the surface. They worked around the clock until it was fixed.
“Something’s not going to go according to plan,” NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer said then. “And the fact that everybody just kind of takes it in stride, doesn’t stress, puts on a happy face, figures it out, is what makes this team a really strong team.”
It’s what makes this year ultimately inspiring.
The Carolina Hurricanes lost two goalies to injury against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 20. David Ayres, who had been standing in Section 317 at Scotiabank Arena, had to play as the emergency backup and gave up two goals on two shots.
It could have been a disaster. It turned out to be the opposite.
The Hurricanes rallied for Ayres, who saved the next eight shots he faced in a 6-3 win. The 42-year-old former Zamboni driver became the oldest goalie to win his NHL debut and the first emergency backup to win an NHL game. His new teammates mobbed him.
When he made a media tour and appeared at a Hurricanes game in Raleigh afterward, Ayres used his 72 hours of fame for a larger purpose. He told everyone he had received a kidney transplant to motivate fellow kidney recipients to live their best lives and to raise money for kidney foundations.
“If I didn’t have a kidney transplant, I never would have got to that game,” Ayres said then. “It’s a great platform to get it out there, for everyone to realize that you can still do whatever you want to do.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman paused the season March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. There was no playbook. When would the League return? How would it do so safely?
The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association crafted a Return to Play Plan that featured a 24-team tournament with strict safety protocols in a bubble in Edmonton and Toronto.
The attitude wasn’t just to make the best of a bad situation. It was to stage a competition worthy of the Stanley Cup and create a unique made-for-TV event for fans who couldn’t be in the stands.
The NHL suggested best-of-5 series for the first round or two of the Stanley Cup Playoffs so the players would have to spend less time away from family and friends. The players said no. They wanted four seven-game series to crown the champion as usual.
Mayer and his team transformed the arenas into TV sets with seat covers, concert lighting and giant video screens, and they created comfortable environments for teams and staff with everything from food trucks to pop-up restaurants.
No one knew how it would go. But we saw two months of thrilling hockey from Aug. 1 to Sept. 28, and through it all, the players kept perspective not just on the coronavirus but social justice.
On the first day of the tournament, Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba spoke on the ice about fighting racism. On Aug. 27 and 28, four games were postponed after the players decided not to play in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
How can you not be inspired by Philadelphia Flyers forward Oskar Lindblom, who returned in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the New York Islanders on Sept. 3, two months after finishing cancer treatment?
Or Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos, who returned in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final against Dallas on Sept. 23 after sitting out with a lower-body injury? Stamkos scored on his first, and what would be his only, shot of the postseason.
“It was a dream come true,” Stamkos said then.
How can you not be inspired by the Lightning as a whole, who won the Cup after more than two months away from home?
Or by the League as a whole, which had zero positives out of 33,174 COVID-19 tests to team personnel in the bubble?
The 2019-20 season ended when the 2020-21 season should have been beginning, and the 2020-21 season won’t start until Jan. 13. There will be no Winter Classic. There will be 56 games instead of 82, a temporary realignment, division-only games and …
Who knows what else?
Something’s not going to go according to plan. But you take it in stride, put on a happy face and figure it out, and the show goes on. That’s the spirit of 2020 and the lesson for the future.
The NHL did it once. It will do it again.