By Neil Becker
September is a magical month full of endless possibilities and excitement for hockey fans.
When the calendar turns to September, that's when television sportscasters and daily newspapers from across Canada begin reporting on the start of training camps and what to expect for the upcoming NHL season.
Growing up and well into adulthood, I wasn't different from the average Canadian, who, when September hit, couldn't get enough of hearing about these in-depth training camp storylines as to what rookies were having strong training camps and what the competition was like among the various teams for roster sports.
In fall, starting in Grade 10, and continuing throughout high school, I would routinely put on an Edmonton Oilers Wayne Gretzky jersey, and walk to the local variety store where I would purchase hockey cards along with several hockey forecast publications which would give detailed predictions on who would win the Stanley Cup and various individual awards. These magazines, which I still have today, also had an in-depth analysis of each team and each player on the roster, which obviously helped me prepare for upcoming regular season hockey pools.
As NHL training camp progressed and the season got closer, it was a time when fans such as myself, held those respective pools before grabbing their hockey sticks and spending the afternoon playing shiny, all the while counting down the days until the start of another hockey season.
The highlight was, of course, watching Hockey Night In Canada, which meant until very recently the excitement of hearing what Canadian hockey icon Don Cherry had to say during the first intermission on Coach's Corner. Cherry, nicknamed 'Grapes,' was a former NHL coach of the Boston Bruins and Colorado Rockies. Following his coaching career, Cherry built up a reputation all across Canada for making some outlandish and sometimes controversial comments on his first period intermission segment show. This proud Canadian, never afraid to speak his mind, was a hero among many Canadians and a must-see on Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday night.
Unfortunately, this past September, due to COVID-19, that routine of counting down the days and anticipating a new NHL season full of countless storylines was broken.
The pandemic, which has turned the world upside down, brought a temporary stoppage to the NHL season on March 12, 2020. In late May, the NHL had some thrilling news when they announced what was termed a Return To Play Plan, which consisted of 24 teams coming back and competing that summer for the Stanley Cup.
Due to the threat of COVID-19, the playoff format had the Eastern Conference teams playing their series in Toronto at Scotiabank Arena, while the Western Conference teams battled it out in Edmonton's Rogers Place.
Experiencing an unusual twist, hockey fans were treated to watching playoff hockey in mid-summer, lasting right up until late September when on September 28, 2020, at Rogers Place, the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup.
While it was a thrilling Stanley Cup finals, which went six games against the Dallas Stars, it was a weird feeling afterwards with it being late September and no hockey on the horizon.
Though I enjoyed watching Toronto Blue Jays games and looked forward to the Major League baseball playoffs, there was still a big void knowing that when the temperature dipped, there would be no hockey to look forward to. In trying to replace that void, I spent countless evenings watching the MLB post-season along with taped games shown on television of long-ago NHL playoff classics. Being shown were such classics as Game 6 of the 1989 Stanley Cup finals when the Calgary Flames beat the Montreal Canadiens. Also on television was the 1976 Stanley Cup finals when the Canadiens finished off a sweep against the Philadelphia Flyers before making history by winning four straight Stanley Cups. Another classic was the 1987 Patrick Division Game 7 'Eastern Epic,' a marathon overtime game that went until Easter Sunday before New York Islanders forward Pat Lafontaine scored the eventual series winner.
Also being shown was the deciding Game 7 in an epic 1993 opening-round series between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs. This series would also be decided in overtime as Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nikolai Borschevsky emerged as the hero. He'd score the series-winning goal in overtime to send the Leafs to round two against the St. Louis Blues.
Life was hard without hockey, but I managed to watch a handful of quality movies, including all-time classics Slap Shot and Youngblood. I also enjoyed reading some great hockey books, including 'The Crazy Game' by former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk, 'The Rise Of The Pittsburgh Penguins 2009-2018,' 'Young Leafs', 'The Battle of Alberta' and a book on Hall of Fame goalie 'Jacques Plante.'
Many afternoons and nights were spent playing NHL hockey and MLB the Show on my Playstation. Afternoons were also passed playing my NHL edition of Monopoly and sorting through my hockey cards.
After the Stanley Cup was presented, it would only be a few short months, although it seemed like forever, until the puck officially dropped on another season.
In late December, the NHL and NHL Players' Association gave fans a monumental Christmas present as they agreed to a shortened 56 game regular season.
"The National Hockey League looks forward to the opening of our 2020-21 season, especially since the Return to Play in 2019-20 was so successful in crowning a Stanley Cup champion," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "While we are well aware of the challenges ahead, as was the case last spring and summer, we are continuing to prioritize the health and safety of our participants and the communities in which we live and play. And, as was the case last spring and summer, I thank the NHLPA, particularly Executive Director Don Fehr, for working cooperatively with us to get our League back on the ice."
Following a brief training camp in early January, the teams kicked off the shortened season on January 13, which was obviously music to any hockey fan's ears. The season will conclude on May 8, and playoffs will stretch out until around mid-July.
Hearing last January that there would be even a shortened season was extremely exciting to me and music to the ears of all Canadian hockey fans across Canada.