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Gavin McHale’s unforgettable night as Capitals’ backup goalie

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The calls started to pour in around 5 p.m. CT on Wednesday.

Gavin McHale, a former Western Hockey League goaltender whose NHL dream ended a decade ago, was finishing up practice with the University of Manitoba Bisons women’s hockey team. The 31-year-old goaltending coach did what most do these days when work is over: he checked his phone.

What was different than other days was a screen littered with roughly 10 missed calls, most of them from Winnipeg Jets assistant general manager Craig Heisinger, and another from a random Pennsylvania number.

Both were calling about the same thing.

A few hours earlier, Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby tweaked something in his upper-body during an informal skate at Bell MTS Place. Holtby was slated to start Wednesday night’s game against the Jets, but whatever happened during that brief morning jaunt on the ice turned an expected start into a game-time decision.

Capitals head coach Todd Reirdan spoke with the media at 4:45 p.m. and not a peep was shared about Holtby. But the situation seemed in flux enough that McHale needed to be summoned.

By 5:15 p.m. CT, McHale had caught wind of the situation and was now in his car weaving through traffic to get to from the south end of the city to the Jets’ downtown arena. With the revelation that Holtby would sit due to injury, McHale was set to be signed to an amateur tryout contract and serve as Pheonix Copley’s backup.

“I don’t think I can say those words but (I’m) trying to tell everyone I know that’s close to me and get to the rink as fast as possible,” McHale said of the thoughts racing through his head.

McHale is one of several emergency puckstoppers in Winnipeg. When it’s his turn to be on-call he’ll get to the game with a guest — on Wednesday it was his mom, Val — and eat the press box meal before nestling into his seat to watch among media members and team staffers high above the ice. When the game ends, he exits along with 15,000 others.

Wednesday wasn’t like all the rest.

McHale wasn’t afforded his complimentary pre-game grub. He didn’t sit down next to his mother, either. She was joined by her husband, Ian, in the press box while their son was a few floors below in the visitors’ dressing room suiting up for the game.

“I think every single person in this room introduced themselves to me so it just made me feel a lot more calm and they just kind of let me do my thing,” McHale said. “They had to get ready for a game so it just made me feel really welcomed.”

By 6:40 p.m. CT, McHale, wearing No. 41 in Capitals away threads, stepped onto the ice for his first NHL warmup.

The only shots McHale would see on Wednesday were the ones whizzing by him during warmup, the first courtesy of Alex Ovechkin.

“I was hoping no one saw that,” McHale said afterward.

They did.

It’s hard to miss the 6-foot-7 netminder. But you can forgive him for giving up a few softies as he spelled Copley pre-game.

“Ah, pretty star-struck,” McHale said. “And then star-struck for the next three or four after that until I kind of settled in and the guys said a couple of things to me.”

Crazy enough, it’s not the first time McHale has had to make haste in an emergency role. Heck, it’s not even the first time this year.

On Feb. 16, McHale had to rush down from the press box during the second intermission of Winnipeg’s game against Colorado. Avalanche starter Jonathan Bernier picked up and injury, meaning backup Semyon Varlamov was summoned onto the ice and McHale had to quickly don his goalie garb for the final 20 minutes.

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[ABOUT LAST NIGHT] … “We’ll come get you if we need you.” – @nhljets assistant GM Craig Heisinger on October 4th, 2017, my first game as the Emergency backup. … I looked over at @kbabb9 and we chuckled, knowing that shit would have to go sideways for that to happen. … Since then, every time I’ve been working a game and a goalie gets knocked or nudged or twists the wrong way, my heart stops. … “Will this be the moment I throw an NHL jersey over my head for real?” … Last night was an odd game, the Jets pulling away from the visiting @coloradoavalanche. I even mentioned something to my guest, @c_hodgyyy in the second period when Avs goalie Jonathan Bernier got hit awkwardly. … As the teams skated out for the third period, I noticed the Avalanche had switched their goalie. Totally normal, especially when you’re down 4-0 after two periods. … But Bernier didn’t come out of the tunnel to take his place as backup… GULP. … I turned to watch Jets PR guy Scott Brown walking directly towards me with a smile on his face. … “You’re needed in the Avalanche dressing room. Let’s go.” … I turned to Colin and all I could mustre was “holy fuck” as I stood up and bee-lined it out of the press box. … I put my gear on as fast as I ever have, knowing that I was now one play away from stepping onto the ice in an NHL game. … My heart raced as I slung my equipment onto my body. Then, I realized my childhood dream of slipping a real life @NHL jersey over my head. … It was number 61 and the name bar had been taped over, but I didn’t give a shit. I didn’t even get to keep it, but I can now say that I have dressed for an NHL team, albeit for half a period and I wasn’t even allowed to leave the dressing room. … No contract to sign. No fame (except in my small circle of family and friends) and not even a memento from the team. … But the opportunity to be one play away from PLAYING IN THE NHL? I’ll take any amount of proverbial shit in my pants for that. … #grateful #nhl #avalanche #jets #emergencygoalie #theshow #mchalestrength #tarpsoptional

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A little different, eh?

“It was kind of late in the game so it was a little bit of a different experience than getting the whole pregame experience and all that,” McHale said.

Just after 7 p.m. CT, McHale stood for the anthems at the entrance of the visitors’ tunnel across from Washington’s bench. Sporting a Capitals ball cap, he peered on for the next three periods.

At one point, Copley took a puck off the mask, dislodging it.

“I was thinking, ‘Get that thing on as fast as you can,'” McHale said.

Copley did, and he would go on to stop 21 shots in a 3-1 loss to the Jets.

McHale’s name will forever be on an NHL scoresheet. Playing time or not, he had made it to The Show.

“It’s definitely not something I thought would happen in the last 10 years since the career took a downturn,” McHale said. “But it was a pretty exciting experience.”

On Thursday, McHale returned to his coaching gig with a story to tell. He’ll now have some bragging rights, too, for his beer league buddies who play weekly at Bell MTS Iceplex.

“I think the biggest thing is that every guy in here was so nice to me and made me feel so good,” he said. “Just to be a person is a really important piece of what hockey players are. This was a pretty successful team last year, so to be welcomed in like that in a bit of a crazy situation was a pretty nice feeling.”

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Governor approves activities for pro teams in New Jersey

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Gov. Phil Murphy tweeted Tuesday that as long as the NFL’s Giants and Jets and the NHL’s Devils follow health and medical protocols, they could open training camps or even hold competition.

The NFL’s preseason and training camps wouldn’t begin until midsummer — teams are doing virtual workouts in place of the usual on-field activities because of the coronavirus pandemic. But the NHL is planning ways to complete the 2019-20 season. Should those plans include the Devils, they now can reopen their training facilities.

“Professional sports teams in NJ may return to training and even competition — if their leagues choose to move in that direction,” Murphy wrote on Twitter.

“We have been in constant discussions with teams about necessary protocols to protect the health and safety of players, coaches, and personnel.”

A Jets spokesman said: “We are working closely with Gov. Murphy’s office, the league and our medical staff to establish prudent, health and safety measures for our staff and players. Based on those guidelines, we will begin to open our facility using a phased approach at a time that is the most practical for our operations.”

The Giants echoed those sentiments and said: “With today’s announcement by the governor, we are finalizing our plans to reopen the Quest Diagnostics Training Center. We will continue to have as many employees as possible working remotely. For employees who need to return to work at our facility, we expect to begin that process next week, and we will do so in a systematic and safe way that adheres to the state’s guidelines and NFL protocols.”

Isolating away from family a ‘hot topic’ as NHL plots return

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Young and single, Thatcher Demko has plenty of time on his hands, with little to do. Quarantining to play hockey wouldn’t be a problem for the Vancouver Canucks goalie.

“I don’t have too many roots,” the 24-year-old said. “I’ve been living pretty much out of my car for the most part for the last six, seven years just going from place to place.”

Older players disagree.

Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk doesn’t think players with children would be interested in spending lengthy stretches away from their loved ones amid the pandemic. And neither does Boston’s Tuukka Rask, who bluntly said: “It doesn’t feel right to take guys away from their families for many, many months at a time.”

It’s a reality players might have to face for the NHL to resume play, something Toronto’s Kyle Clifford calls a “hot topic” among players. While the NHL and its players’ union are discussing a 24-team playoff format to resume the season, figuring out how to incorporate family time in a potential quarantine environment is one of many hurdles to clear.

“For sure that’s a big thing,” said Philadelphia forward James van Riemsdyk, one of the players on the Return to Play committee and a new father. “No one wants to be away from their family for months on end, and everyone is aware of that with who’s on this committee.”

From Dubnyk and Rask in the NHL to Major League Baseball players Mike Trout and Ryan Zimmerman, pro athletes have voiced concerns about spending significant time away from family. When baseball was considering a containment bubble in Arizona to play, Zimmerman — whose wife is due to give birth to the couple’s third child in June — said he wouldn’t accept not seeing them for four or five months.

“I can tell you right now that’s not going to happen,” Zimmerman said. “Not many people have to go through that, nor should they.”

The NHL, like the NBA, does not face the challenge of trying to complete an entire season. But even an abbreviated return calls for coordinating 600-plus players at different stages of their personal lives.

“I think it’d be easier for guys without families or single guys to kind of go on quarantine and enjoy that process as much as you can,” Nashville defenseman Ryan Ellis said. “But it would be tough being a father myself. It would be tough to live through FaceTime in that situation. But you have to weigh the pros and cons on each side and what’s important for you and your family.”

The league was exploring various locations that could host games, including Edmonton, Columbus and Las Vegas. They could be big enough for players to bring family members with them, or the format might allow for a break in the schedule for teams that advance deep into the playoffs.

“You’ve got to kind of create this bubble, but if families are coming in and out, then I don’t know,” said Carolina’s Jordan Martinook, who has a year-old son he doesn’t want to be away from for more than a month at a time. “That kind of compromises the bubble. I don’t know if they would say your family’s got to be with you from day one the whole time or they can’t come if you’re in the bubble.”

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said league officials are “sensitive to the issue and are focused on finding a solution that works for the players.”

New Jersey’s Connor Carrick, whose Devils might be off until the start of next season, said he trusts NHLPA executive director Don Fehr and his staff to make a decision in the best interest of as many players as possible. Those waiting on the possibility of playing, like Washington’s Beck Malenstyn, hope there’s a resolution that weighs isolation from family members against the risk of them getting infected.

“I think there’s probably a happy medium between the two,” Malenstyn said. “You definitely don’t just want to close the door on your family in a time like this. But it’s also you have to look at it if we were going to take that step to go back and play, it’s the safety of your family to probably not have them around, either, just with the exposure to everything.”

Added Demko, the Vancouver goalie: “I think everyone’s going to have to make a sacrifice: players, owners, union. I don’t think that there is a scenario where everyone’s going to be happy with the situation.”

Why Hurricanes, Lightning voted against Return to Play proposal

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The NHLPA Executive Board vote on the 24-team, conference-based return-to-play proposal went 29-2 in favor of the idea. Given the circumstances, increasing the field, rewarding the top four seeds in each conference, and using play-in games to determine the 16 playoff teams was what ended up getting approved.

The two teams that voted against the proposal weren’t in danger of missing out, but had their reasons to be against such a format.

As Lightning forward Alex Killorn explained to Joe Smith of The Athletic, the bigger field and his team having a Round 1 bye were the main concerns among his teammates.

“They didn’t feel it was fair that certain teams that probably wouldn’t have made the playoffs would have a chance to make the playoffs in a best-of-five series,” said Killorn, the team’s player rep. “My team also felt it was unfair that the teams with a bye would not be as well prepared for a playoff series as the teams that had already basically played a playoff series to get into the playoffs.”

[NHLPA board approves 24-team, return-to play-format]

The approved format sees the Lightning start with a bye and participating in a mini-tournament with the Bruins, Capitals and Flyers for seeding before taking on one of the play-in round series winners. How useful those games before Round 2 would be was another issue with Killorn and his team.

“The only problem I have with that format is that the top teams that have a bye,” he said. “I don’t know how competitive the games will be going forward where the teams at the bottom will be playing playoff games right away and [would be] potentially more prepared for the real playoffs.”

Hurricanes’ view

Carolina is set to be the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and would take on the Rangers in the play-in round. The winner of that series would then play the No. 3 seed — either the Lightning, Capitals, Bruins or Flyers.

The Hurricanes had 14 games to play and were sitting in the first wild card spot at the time of the March 12 pause. Player rep Jordan Martinook and his teammates disagreed with the proposal because they felt this created format made their road even tougher.

“It just kind of limits our odds and makes you play another playoff series, basically. It wasn’t just for our team’s situation,” Martinook told reporters on Monday. “You look at teams that had a 10 percent chance to make it, and now they’re pretty much on a 50-50 playing field.”

Who knows if the Hurricanes would have reeled off a points streak over the final 14 games to improve their standing, but Martinook was confident his team could have finished strong.

“I’m not taking anything away from the top four teams,” he said, “but we felt like we could have kept climbing the ladder. It doesn’t really benefit the teams in 5, 6, 7 or 8, it kind of hinders those teams. Then, it gives a lot to the 9, 10, 11 and 12.”

Martinook acknowledged that the ideal return to play format would be to finish the regular season, but time is of the essence and the Hurricanes will be ready to play.

“We’re fine with the way it’s going to go,” he said. “You’re going to have to win to win. We’re fully prepared with what we’ve got moving forward.”

MORE:
NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?
Predators’ Duchene: ‘You don’t want to have a COVID Cup’

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: NHL’s dynamic duos; Malarchuk helping veterans

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Which NHL duo could be hockey’s version of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen? [TSN]

• “Saluting Jaromir Jagr, the most overqualified sidekick in NHL history” [The Score]

• The Devils showed interest in Rikard Gronborg, but his contract features no NHL out clause and he will honor the remaining term on his deal. [Swiss Hockey News]

• The story of former NHL ref Pat Dapuzzo, whose career came to an end after a freak injury, and how he’s influenced those around him. [Sportsnet]

• On Clint Malarchuk and how he’s helping veterans these days. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

• The one trophy Wayne Gretzky keeps in his California home is one that was gifted to him from Maurice Richard. [NHL.com]

• A great read on the history of one of the league’s best logos: the Coyotes’ Kachina’s. [Arizona Republic]

• Work on the Islanders’ new arena at Belmont Park is set to resume. [NHL.com]

• The 2020 NHL draft pool for goaltenders is thin. [Featurd]

Robby Fabbri is hoping to make Detroit his home come free agency. [Freep]

• Zayde Wisdom, a 2020 NHL draft prospect, is taking advice from the likes of Wayne Simmonds and the Stewart brothers ahead of taking the next step in his hockey career. [NHL.com]

• Looking back at the short history of the University of Alabama-Huntsville hockey program. [The Hockey News]

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.