Year in Review: Top hockey stories of 2020

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Pro Hockey Talk is taking a look back at the year in hockey. We’ll be presenting you with the best goals, saves, moments, NHL players and more as we remember 2020.

It’s time to finish up the Pro Hockey Talk year in review. Since it’s the final day of 2020, let’s take a look back at the last 12 months and the biggest stories that shaped the hockey world.

This has been one helluva year, and I think we’re ready for some better days ahead.

NHL halts 2019-20 season, awards Stanley Cup in a bubble

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the NHL to pause games on March 12 with less than a month remaining in the regular season. That left a number of questions. Would the regular season be completed? Would the league award the Stanley Cup? When would we see NHL games played again?

In late May, the NHL and NHLPA worked out a Return to Play plan that saw the regular season come to an end and the playoff field expanded to 24 teams. The games would take place in August, with a Stanley Cup champion claiming victory in October — one calendar year after the 2019-20 schedule began.

Part of that Return to Play plan included happy news regarding the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Both sides agreed to a six-year extension and the NHL told the players it would allow participation in the 2022 Olympics should they reach an agreement with the International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation. (Labor peace!)

When the games did resume, the 24 teams were holed up in bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton with all games being played at Rogers Place and Scotiabank Arena. The hockey was good, the games were exciting, we had some upsets, and the Tampa Bay Lightning were crowned champions. And, just as importantly, the NHL reported zero positives out of 33,174 COVID-19 tests for all involved over the course of the nearly three-month bubble experiment.

The bubble concept caught on and the NWHL announced it will play its entire 2020-21 season in Lake Placid, New York. They were one of a number of leagues around the world that cut short their 2019-20 schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The season will take place between Jan. 21-Feb. 5. The Isobel Cup semifinals and final will air live on NBCSN Feb. 4 and 5.

League, players green-light 2021 season

It took some time, a realignment, and a unique schedule, but we will have a season beginning Jan. 13, 2021. After weeks of talks, the NHL and NHLPA agreed to a 56-game season, which will feature a one-year reshuffling of the divisions.

Due to the U.S.-Canada border closure all seven Canadian teams will play in the North Division. Teams will play an intra-division schedule and the top four from each will make the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Once in the postseason, the first two rounds will feature divisional play with each “champion” advancing to the Stanley Cup Semifinals. In a decision that maybe we’ll see one day in the NHL, the final four teams will be re-seeded, so it’s possible we get an Avalanche-Golden Knights or even an Islanders-Rangers Cup Final.

The late start to the season will also mean some key dates being pushed back. The 2021 NHL Expansion Draft will take place July 21; the Entry Draft will be held July 23-24; and free agency opens July 28.

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A unique Winter Classic

There were 85,630 fans filling the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas on New Year’s Day eager to watch some outdoor hockey. The stadium known for its famous college football bowl game was host to a memorable 2020 Winter Classic. After the bull riders, pig races, twirlers of rope and off-ice entertainment, the Stars topped the Predators 4-2 in the second-largest attendance in league history.

“I saw [the pig races] on the big screen at one point,” Jason Dickinson of the Stars said afterward. “I had to look away. I knew I’d get in trouble if I kept laughing.”

Unfortunately, there will be no outdoor games this coming season. The 2021 Winter Classic, which was to feature the Wild vs. Blues at Target Stadium, and the 2020 Stadium Series game hosted by the Hurricanes, have both been postponed.

Alex Ovechkin reaches 700 goals

On a Saturday afternoon in February, Alex Ovechkin added another milestone to his long list of NHL accomplishments. That day in New Jersey, the Capitals captain became the eighth player in league history to score 700 goals. 

Ovechkin, 34, became the second youngest and fastest player (1,144 games) to score 700 goals, trailing Wayne Gretzky, who was 29 years old (886 games) when he scored his 700th in Jan. 1991 as a member of the Los Angeles Kings.

The milestone marker was his second goal in as many games after being stuck at 698 for a week. Ovechkin would score six more times before the season pause, leaving him at 706, 188 away from Gretzky’s record of 894. Can he catch The Great One? Given his production and ability to remain healthy, he’s got a great chance.

Record crowd watches U.S. women top Canada

As part of their five-game Rivalry Series, the U.S. and Canadian women squared off at Honda Center in Anaheim in front of a record crowd of 13,320. The Americans won 4-3 after a Megan Bozek overtime goal. The attendance topped the previous mark of 10,158 set in 2002 when the two sides faced off at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

“Together, we’re breaking barriers,” said Kendall Coyne Schofield via the LA Times. “I think tonight the Anaheim Ducks set the tone and set the market. You can host a women’s hockey game in your building and sell it.”

Hockey Hall of Fame class of 2020 to wait a year

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the Hockey Hall of Fame to delay the 2020 induction ceremony by a year. Jarome Iginla, Marian Hossa, Kim St-Pierre, Ken Holland, Kevin Lowe and Doug Wilson will get a proper ceremony in 2021. By doing so, the decision was also made not to announce a 2021 class, as the Selection Committee has done every year in June.

“The magic of the induction weekend from the perspective of the new inductees is participating in several days of close interaction with family, friends, former teammates, fellow legends and fans,” Hall of Fame chairman Lanny McDonald said. “On that premise, the board felt that this was the right decision to bestow upon the Class of 2020 the recognition and lifetime experience they so richly deserve in all ways consistent with past induction classes.”

Tuukka Rask opts out

Once the NHL and NHLPA hammered out the Return to Play plan, players were given a deadline where they could opt out of playing. A handful decided against participating, including Travis Hamonic and Mike Green. There was one more opt out to come, and it surprised the hockey world early in the playoffs.

On the morning of Game 3 of their First Round series against the Hurricanes, Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask announced he was opting out out the postseason. He later explained his decision.

“I got a phone call from my wife and my daughter was in a state that she needed medical attention and she wasn’t doing well,” Rask told the Boston Herald’s Steve Conroy. “At that point, I had no choice but to go home. It’s as simple as that. If you get a phone call wherever you are, like I did, it’s a pretty easy decision.”

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Oskar Lindblom returns from cancer treatments

One of the more memorable stories from the NHL bubble experience was the comeback of Oskar Lindblom. The Flyers forward had been diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in Dec. 2019 and missed the team’s final 39 regular season games. GM Chuck Fletcher held out hope that the 22-year-old could return to play if the team made a run in the Toronto bubble. In July, the Swede rang the bell at Abramson Cancer Center at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, signifying the end of his treatments. Next up was getting into game shape to play after signing a three-year extension.

After returning to practice on Aug. 16, Lindblom finally suited up for Game 6 of Flyers’ Second Round series against the Islanders in early September. He would play the team’s final two games and showed us he’s fully back.

The good news didn’t end there. Earlier this month, a scan showed that Lindblom remains cancer-free as he prepares for the 2020-21 season.

Seattle releases the Kraken

As they prepare for entry with the 2021-22 NHL season, the Seattle expansion team gave us a twofer this summer by revealing not only their name, but also their jerseys.

Kraken was a popular choice and it became a reality in July, along with their sweet, sweet jersey designs. Next up for GM Ron Francis and co. is hiring a head coach and then creating a roster with this summer’s expansion draft.

The Kraken made more history when they announced that Cammi Granato, the Olympic gold medalist and Hockey Hall of Famer, was hired as a pro scout, making her the first female in the position in NHL history.

Matt Dumba takes a knee, helps form Hockey Diversity Alliance

The Black Lives Matter movement dominated the summer and when Black hockey players formed the Hockey Diversity Alliance, the Minnesota Wild defenseman wanted to make a statement. Before Game 1 of the Edmonton Oilers and Chicago Blackhawks Qualifying Round series, Dumba came out to center ice and read a passionate statement about racial inequality and then knelt during the playing of the U.S. national anthem.

“All the strength that it took to do it, it came from all the people who have supported me along the way,” Dumba said afterward. “My family, got to thank them, and especially the members at the [Hockey Diversity Alliance]. Hearing those guys’ stories and everything we talk about has given me the courage to do the things that I’ve done.”

Dumba would kneel alone that day, but two days later Robin Lehner and Ryan Reaves of the Vegas Golden Knights and Tyler Seguin and Jason Dickinson of the Dallas Stars would take a knee during both anthems before their Round Robin game.

In late August, as NBA players decided to not play for two days during their postseason, NHL players in both bubbles coordinated a similar plan. The league would go quiet for two days in solidarity with other athlete protests following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin.

Jay Bouwmeester collapses during a game

During the first period of a February game between the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks, Jay Bouwmeester collapsed on the bench and needed immediate medical attention. The game would be postponed and made up at a later date.

Bouwmeester needed surgery to insert a defibrillator to restore his heart’s normal rhythm. He did not play the rest of the season. Blues GM Doug Armstrong recently said he’d love to have the defenseman, who is currently an unrestricted free agent, work in the organization if he desires.

Lottery puts Alexis Lafreniere in New York

The NHL Return to Play plan also included a unique method of determining the winner of the 2020 draft lottery. The seven teams that did not qualify for summer bubble fun, along with the losers of the Qualifying Round matchups, would be eligible to win the right to draft Alexis Lafreniere.

But the night of the lottery things did not go as expected. A Placeholder won the first pick, which meant a second lottery was needed after the Qualifying Round finished in August. When lottery No. 2 was held, the New York Rangers had the winning ball, giving them another young piece to add to their re-tool. 

The poor Detroit Red Wings, who finished with the NHL’s worst record and had a 25% chance to win lottery No. 1, dropped to fourth overall.

An offseason to forget for the Coyotes

Just as teams entered their respective bubbles, the Coyotes learned they would need a new general manager. John Chayka suddenly resigned in late July, leaving Steve Sullivan to take over on an interim basis as they prepared for their Qualifying Round matchup with the Nashville Predators.

Arizona would prevail before leaving the Edmonton bubble after losing to the Colorado Avalanche in Round 1. But the bad news wouldn’t stop. The NHL announced on Aug. 26 they were stripping the Coyotes of two draft picks for violating Scouting Combine rules for testing undrafted players.

Their first pick wouldn’t come until the fourth round, No. 111 overall, where they selected North Dakota defenseman Mitchell Miller. Three weeks after the draft, the Coyotes announced they were renouncing the pick after an Arizona Republic story detailed how Miller harassed a special needs student in high school.

Women’s All-Star 3-on-3 highlights All-Star Weekend

NHL All-Star Weekend has its moments. While the 3-on-3 tournament itself can be a bore at times, the Skills Events can give us some fun moments. During last season’s event in St. Louis, the league added a women’s 3-on-3 game to the schedule featuring players from the the U.S. and Canadian national teams.

The Canadians edged their longtime rivals, 2-1, with Ann-Renee Desbiens putting on an MVP performance with 18 saves.

“It was a little strange after the game,” said Canadian forward Sarah Nurse. “We wanted to celebrate a little bit and we were looking across the room and we see the Americans. Sorry guys.”

Both teams put on an entertaining show and hopefully opened the door for the event to return in the future.

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EBUG beats the Maple Leafs

David Ayres wasn’t the first emergency backup goalie to play an NHL game, but he certainly made his February appearance a memorable one against Toronto. As the EBUG for all Maple Leafs home games, when James Reimer and Petr Mrazek were both injured for the Carolina Hurricanes, Ayres stepped in and helped earn two points for the visitors with a 6-3 win.

After allowing two goals on the first two shots he faced, the 42-year-old Ayres made eight saves the rest of the way to preserve the win.

Following Ayres’ performance he went on a media blitz. From promoting kidney donation to the Hockey Hall of Fame to an appearance on the TODAY show, he was everywhere.

The Hurricanes, known to work quick in these viral situations, announced they would start selling Ayres shirseys with proceeds benefiting a kidney foundation, something Ayres wanted to ensure was part of the deal. He had a kidney transplant in 2004 and his mom was the donor.

“If it wasn’t for my kidney transplant I wouldn’t have been able to do this right now,” said Ayres, who’s full-time job is maintenance operations manager at Mattamy Athletic Centre, which we once knew as Maple Leafs Gardens. “That was the one thing I wanted to do was to make sure there was a kidney foundation in and around Raleigh that we could do something for and hopefully reach somebody and give them step towards where they want to be after they have a transplant or a kidney disease.”

The death of Colby Cave

On April 7, Colby Cave, who split time last season with the AHL Bakersfield Condors and Edmonton Oilers, was hospitalized after suffering a brain bleed. Following four days in hospital, the 25-year-old died.

Tributes were paid across the hockey world and in his home province of Saskatchewan following his death. The Oilers and Cave’s family set up a memorial fund and former Bakersfield teammate Cooper Marody honored him with a song.

Pietrangelo and Hall lead free agency surprises

The Alex Pietrangelo and Taylor Hall sweepstakes were going to be limited given the small pool of teams who might be able to afford either of them. So when Pietrangelo and the Blues broke up through the media and St. Louis courted Torey Krug, the defenseman cashed in with a seven-year, $61.6M deal with the Vegas Golden Knights.

Hall, on the other hand, went short-term and instead of signing with a popular Cup contender he joined up with the Buffalo Sabres on a one-year, $8M deal. Reunited with Ralph Krueger and likely playing alongside Jack Eichel, Hall could give the Sabres a boost in 2020-21 and he could eventually cash in with a long-term deal in free agency next offseason with a strong year.

The other surprise was seeing Joe Thornton leave the San Jose Sharks after 15 seasons to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs. And one late addition would be the stunning departure of Zdeno Chara, who signed a one-year deal with the Washington Capitals.

Bobby Ryan returns home, nets hat trick

The Senators forward took a leave of absence from the team in November to deal with an alcohol problem. He would return in Febryary and in his first game back at Scotiabank Place Ryan recorded a hat trick during a memorable night.

“I knew Ottawa being the community that it is that the reception would be good,” Ryan said. “It just got harder to keep the emotions down throughout the game. It was incredible. They supported me and I got to contribute. You can’t write that, the way that went. It was just an incredible evening, so thank you to all of them.”

Ryan comeback led to him being voted winner of the 2020 Bill Masterton Trophy, which is given “to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”

In memoriam

Henri Richard, Eddie Shack, Travis Roy, Howie Meeker, Dale Hawerchuk, Joey Moss, Fred Saskamoose, Alex Trebek, Ken King, Pierre Lacroix, Tom Webster, and Neil Armstrong were among those who died in 2020.

Other stories of note: Stephen Johns returns after 22-month absence, scores with parents in attendance; Alex Trebek announces Tim Stuetzle pick; Secret gives Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association $1 million to continue its barnstorming Dream Gap Tour of games; Henrik Lundqvist to sit out 2021 season and will undergo heart surgery; Sharks draft Ozzy Wiesblatt in unique way; U.S. national team captain Meghan Duggan retires.

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