EDMONTON, Alberta – The hockey was still hockey.
Connor McDavid’s lightning-fast speed, Patrick Kane’s stealthy shot and the cacophony of sticks and pucks and bodies crunching into the boards — all of that was on display at Rogers Place when the NHL returned Saturday with a 24-team postseason tournament after a 142-day hiatus.
The Blackhawks toppled the Oilers 6-4, the first of two clashes on the day from the Western Conference hub with another three occurring in Toronto, where the East has set up shop.
But while the season resumed to culminate like it always does, with the Stanley Cup getting paraded around the ice, the NHL relaunched after getting shut down by the coronavirus pandemic on March 12 with plenty of reminders of how the world has evolved during its hibernation.
In a surprise cameo, Wild defenseman Matt Dumba joined both teams lined up around center ice and addressed a national TV audience in Canada and the United States with a nearly three-minute speech on racial injustice.
Dumba, who helped create the Hockey Diversity Alliance earlier this summer with other pro players in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody, spoke of how deeply rooted systemic racism is in society and of wanting kids to feel “safe, comfortable and free-minded” when they enter an arena. His message was accompanied by the words “END RACISM” on the video boards.
“Racism is everywhere, and we need to fight against it,” said Dumba, who is Filipino-Canadian.
And then Dumba became the first NHLer to kneel for the U.S. national anthem, a hand from Chicago goalie Malcom Subban and Edmonton defenseman Darnell Nurse on each of his shoulders. Dumba stood for Canada’s national anthem.
“Hockey is a great game, but it could be a whole lot greater,” said Dumba, wearing a Hockey Diversity Alliance sweatshirt. “And it starts with all of us.”
Times are also different in the arena.
Trainers on each team’s bench wore masks. Hand-sanitizing stations littered the concourse level, and benches were wiped down between periods. Media check-in consisted of a temperature reading and symptoms survey.
Most jarring, though, were the empty seats. Some were covered by tarps, embossed with “Edmonton” or “NHL.” But most were abandoned, an unfamiliar sight but one that also made the purity of the game unmistakable — the impact from every pass, carom and hit floating to the rafters.
So did the chatter among players and the cheers erupting from the benches after a goal. “Come on” was the bellow after McDavid skidded along the ice following an apparent trip that was missed by the officials, the voice chiming in sounding very much like the one that belongs to Oilers head coach Dave Tippett.
But the acoustics also acted like the locals were let in.
Each team’s respective goal horn blasted when someone scored, with Chicago’s celebratory “Chelsea Dagger” getting plenty of airtime. The NHL’s version of elevator music filled the silence during stoppages in play and at intermissions, and hype videos scrolled across the Jumbotron.
Occasionally, a “Let’s Go Oilers” chant even broke out when a compilation of fans cheering appeared on the LED screens suspended from the ceiling.
It didn’t help sharpen the edge that usually dominates the Stanley Cup playoffs, the bite between the Oilers and Blackhawks lacking.
Still, hockey is back, and the object of the game hasn’t changed.
But the world has, and that includes the NHL.