EDMONTON, ALBERTA – Summers in Edmonton used to be the norm for me.
That’s where I was born, and some of my most cherished memories came from growing up just outside the city.
I remember cotton candy ice cream dripping down a cone, learning to ride a two-wheeler on the sidewalk in front of my childhood home, and struggling to fall asleep at night when the sun was still pouring through the windows at bedtime.
Even after my family moved to Arizona when I was 9 years old, we continued to go back to Canada in the summer — loading up the car for the drive north. We got there in two days if we stuck to the 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. schedule and three if we made an extra pit stop.
And once we crossed the border from Montana into Alberta, we loved sinking our teeth into an A&W burger. Tim Hortons, of course, was also a must-have.
These vacations became more infrequent as I got older, but they were still special because I could reconnect with the past and where I’m from and the relatives I don’t see often.
But perhaps the most unique trip home I’ll ever take is the one I’m on now.
I’m in Edmonton to cover the Wild and NHL’s return, which kicks off next month when the season that was paused in March by the coronavirus pandemic resumes with a 24-team tournament for the Stanley Cup.
The Wild officially starts playing Aug. 2 with a best-of-five play-in series against the Vancouver Canucks. Whoever advances moves on to the traditional four-round, best-of-seven playoff format. But the circumstances will be far from typical.
Not only is the action being concentrated in two cities — Edmonton is hosting the Western Conference teams, Toronto the Eastern — but fans won’t be in attendance. And all of this will take place in a bubble, with teams set up in nearby hotels and the vicinity cut off from the public.
My experience will also be different, starting with the reason why I’m already in Edmonton even though the Wild’s first game is still two weeks away.
After flying to Edmonton, a journey filled with temperature checks, hand sanitizer and a thorough vetting of my travel documents amid the restrictions between the U.S.-Canada border, I had to begin a 14-day mandatory quarantine in my hotel room.
So far, so good.
The first delivery from Tim Hortons arrived promptly. There’s enough room in the corner to stage a workout area and use the dumbbells I packed. And I have a view, with the afternoon sun and puffy clouds looking like the same backdrop from my days as a carefree kid on break from school.
I’ve also got a stack of books, a 750-piece puzzle and a list of TV shows to work through for the lulls, but I don’t think time will crawl. There’s still so much to address before the Wild begins its quest for the Cup.
Before the season stopped, the team was on a roll and in contention to claim a wild-card berth in the West. Kevin Fiala was playing at an elite level and scoring at a torrid pace, and backup Alex Stalock was lights-out in net – taking the starting job from Devan Dubnyk.
Really, the whole team seemed to have found its mojo.
But it’s been more than four months since the Wild last played.
Can the team get its groove back? Who will be in net for Game 1? And will any of this look or feel the same?
I’ll keep tracking these topics from my hotel for now but, once I’ve fulfilled my isolation requirement, I’ll be inside Rogers Place when the Wild competes to deliver an in-person account of what’s happening. This is an unprecedented undertaking by the NHL and in professional sports, and I will be chronicling it all and sharing what I observe and hear from studying the action live.
That I’m doing this in my hometown is fitting.
I’ve been in Minnesota covering the Wild for the Star Tribune for almost three years, and I think why the Twin Cities felt like home to me so quickly is because the area reminds me of Edmonton.
They both spend much of the year covered in snow but when it melts, there’s plush greenery everywhere and sherbet-colored sunsets. Traffic can be touch-and-go, but it’s mostly tolerable.
And Edmonton is obsessed with hockey just like Minnesota is.
My dad is the one who not only introduced me to the sport but also taught me all about it, from the rules to how to set up in the offensive zone. But he didn’t just give me a hobby.
He passed along a passion to believe in and feel inspired by.
Sports are powerful, and hockey reminds me of that all the time.
I see it when I show up to Xcel Energy Center and notice the foyer packed with jerseys waiting to get through the gates.
I hear it when the crowd roars after a goal.
And I feel it when I write a story that I hope enlightens fans or gives them something to discuss with their family and friends.
I’ve been having those chats with my dad for most of my life, starting conversations with what I’d learned from the sports section before we’d analyze the team’s potential and which players might come and go, and that’s what helped seal my future as a journalist.
Covering hockey has taken me all over North America, to places I’d never imagined I’d go, and I’m so grateful I get to keep watching and talking about the game I love.
I’m also glad it takes me home, to where it all began.