NHLers reflect on the one-and-done, all-Canadian North Division

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Tyler Toffoli had filled the net on consecutive nights against his former team.

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The Montreal Canadiens winger recorded a hat-trick in a 6–5 shootout loss to the Vancouver Canucks, followed by two goals and an assist 24 hours later in a 7–3 victory.

Toffoli previously spent a day mostly alone in his hotel room because of COVID-19 restrictions on — you guessed it — another meeting with the Canucks inside an empty Rogers Arena.

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“The first game I was like, ‘This is weird,'” he recalled of last month’s NHL/NHLPA Media Tour. “The second game, I was like, ‘Okay.’ And then by the time we played in them (for the third time in a row), it was: ‘I don’t want to see you guys anymore.’

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“I’m like, ‘This is ridiculous.

Canada-based players grateful for North Division as NHL deals with COVID-19 in US

Montreal would win that matchup 5-2 ahead of their trip to the east, but the same scenario on that January road trip would be repeated over and over again in the pandemic-needed North Division.

A narrower schedule, the same opponents, longer flights, no fans and a lot of time isolated from the rest of the world.

The NHL realigned its divisions for the 2020-21 campaign – shortened to 56 games – with the aim of cutting travel and potential COVID-19 exposure where a team could have an outbreak.

But while the league’s 24 US-based clubs were clustered regionally into three self-contained circuits, and many saw fans eventually return in significant numbers, once the TK began, Canada’s seven franchises were four. Coronavirus limit rules related to non-essential travel played out due to time zones and thousands of kilometers.

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With the league returning to its normal schedule and its usual 82 competitions in 2021–22, the another done North division is now just a memory.

He is also a player that players will not soon forget.

“Just non-stop hockey every day,” said Toronto Maple Leafs center Austin Matthews. “If we had two days between games, it was almost like a holiday: ‘Holy, this is incredible.’

“That’s how we had to do it to work.”

Watch below: Some videos about the 2020-21 season of the NHL.

Canadian-based NHLers certainly aren’t looking for sympathy. They got the chance to play the sport they love and earn a living that most people only dream of – all during a Granthshala pandemic.

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Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse said there were some tough moments, but they pale in comparison to what was happening in society as a whole.

“People were in a dire situation, whether in terms of health or financially,” he said. “We got to do so many things that so many people didn’t get the opportunity to do.

“We are among the few people who had some sort of normalcy in their lives. I’m going to look back and say, ‘It was a tough time, for sure. But there’s really nothing we can complain about.”

Vancouver Canucks goalkeeper Thatcher Demko, whose team suffered a massive COVID-19 outbreak that made a difficult situation exponentially worse, called it “hopefully the toughest hockey season I’ll ever play.”

“I’ll tell some stories about what that season really looked like,” he said. “Hopefully my kids won’t believe me because it would seem so humiliating at the time.

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Winnipeg Jets center Pierre-Luc Dubois said not being able to unplug from the daily grind, even for a few days, was his biggest challenge on the mental side.

“You arrive (at the hotel) at 4 p.m. and it’s like, ‘Okay, what am I doing until I fall asleep?'” he said. “There are some people who are introverts. They like to be inside. When I come to the rink, I need some outside action to feel refreshed.

So what would Dubois tell her kids about the experience?

“Enjoy the outdoors,” he said with a grin. “I’ll play solitaire by myself, I called everyone in my family.”

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Ottawa Senators defenseman Thomas Chabot said a plus was getting to play in the All-Canadian Division—a unique experience that harkened back to the NHL’s Original Six.

“It would have been fun with the fans,” he said. “It was a different year, it was a different experience, but at least we got to play.”

At the same time, Toronto winger Mitch Marner said the restrictions placed on players in an effort to keep COVID-19 at bay made it difficult to bond with teammates.

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“There were rules for playing cards, sitting at the table,” he said. “You had to sit down with certain people. You had to find other ways to be really personal.”

“A completely different season,” said Calgary Flames forward Andrew Mangiapen. “It was hard to find spots to build that chemistry.”

Marner said the Leafs – and this would undoubtedly apply to Senators and Canadiens as well – had difficulty adjusting to travel compared to what they were used to in the Eastern Conference.

“We have to go to Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary, some of those places the day before the game,” he said. “It’s a five-hour flight and then it’s two or three hours…

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