Coronavirus Conundrum: The Challenges of Playing Hockey in a Pandemic

The pandemic forced several top NHL prospects to play in unusual places – and in some cases to not play at all. But it also created a few unforeseen benefits, too.
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Like a lot of us, Luke Evangelista put on a few extra pounds during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like almost none of us, they were actually in the right places. The way Evangelista sees it, if you’re going to go through more than a year of ice-olation, it would be wise to use that time productively.

Of the first 100 players taken in the 2020 draft, 99 found a place to play and at least get some game reps in the 2020-21 season. The 100th was Evangelista, a 19-year-old right winger for the OHL’s London Knights who was taken 42nd overall by the Nashville Predators.

Evangelista didn’t get into a game until late March, more than a year after he last saw action. Because of the pandemic, the OHL had been put on hold, and the Predators had temporarily lost their AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, who were forced to share space with the Carolina Hurricanes’ prospects on the Chicago Wolves. That left Evangelista with no place to play for over a year.

Instead of binging on Netflix, however, Evangelista decided to binge on working out with his personal trainer in his hometown of Oakville, Ont., in an effort to bulk up. When he weighed in for the last time with the Knights last season, he tipped the scales at 159 pounds. When a spot finally opened up with the Wolves in mid-March, he was a more robust 175. “With all this time off from the game, it was important for me to gain a lot more strength and a lot more weight,” Evangelista said. “A big thing with me is I’ve always been a slighter guy, so I needed to work on the strength part. A year without hockey sucks when you’ve been playing it for 14 or 15 years, but it gave me the chance to be in the best shape I’ve ever been in my life. And I usually lose weight during the season with all the games and practices.”

It’s fair to say that everyone’s life has been thrown into disarray since March 2020, so there are few people who are going to feel sorry for young men chasing the dream of playing in the best hockey league in the world. But the players who were drafted in 2019 and 2020 spent much of this season scrambling to find places to play, unless they played for a European team or U.S. college hockey. The QMJHL started late, tried to play in bubbles and eventually had to halt play for December and most of January before restarting its schedule. The WHL didn’t begin its season until early March. By the time the OHL would normally be starting its playoffs in mid-March, it still had no idea when things would get going, though there were hopes things could begin in April. Some players had to improvise. Dallas Stars defense prospect Daemon Hunt played for three teams in three leagues of wildly varying skill levels. With the WHL delayed, Hunt played three games for the Iowa Wild in the AHL, then caught on for three more games with the Virden Oil Capitals of the Manitoba Jr. A League before joining his Moose Jaw Warriors when the WHL finally started its season.

Some were saved by the World Junior Championship in December. Others found teams in Europe and the USHL, while a handful of top prospects got time in the AHL and proved they could excel at that level. But there is no doubt that the 2020-21 season, from a developmental standpoint, has been like none before. How that will ultimately affect this cohort of players won’t be known for another couple of years, but it’s doubtful it will have a significant negative effect. In fact, in some cases, particularly those where teams could put their best young players in the minors, it could turn out to be a boon. “In the long term, it won’t be detrimental, but in the short term, some guys could possibly be set back six to 12 months,” said Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland. “It’s like an injury. When this happens to a guy, sometimes the next year is tough, but players usually catch up, especially younger guys.”

In the real world, the pandemic has forced changes to behavior and routine, some for the better. Families are spending more time together and people have slowed down. Working remotely has become the reality for many people, and advancements such as Zoom have proven to be game-changers. In hockey, there have been some unintended consequences as well. In Evangelista’s case, for example, there’s almost no way he could’ve added the bulk he now has if he had been practising and playing almost every day. As many people have found out, sometimes it’s good to get away from the grind. “I don’t think it’s a broad-stroke effect,” said Los Angeles Kings director of amateur scouting Mark Yannetti. “We’ve been pretty fortunate in that pretty well all of our guys have found a place to play. Some of our guys playing junior are in Ontario (AHL) and they’re getting more attention than they would have in junior hockey. (Quinton) Byfield, (Arthur) Kaliyev, (Alex) Turcotte turning pro, they’re getting more attention than they would in a normal year. This year, these guys are actually getting a better development opportunity.”

It should be noted that missing time in 2021 is not the same as it was decades ago. It’s never ideal when a player loses that much time in a competitive environment, but between their own people and the team that owns their rights, players have access to more resources than ever before. “These guys all have power-skating people and puckhandling people, fitness people,” said Tampa Bay Lightning director of amateur scouting Al Murray. “They’ve got a team of development people around them, from both the NHL team, their junior team and their own private guys. I don’t think there’s going to be anything long-term.”

The Lightning have two late-round prospects in Declan McDonnell, a seventh-round pick in 2020, and Quinn Schmiemann, a sixth-rounder in 2019, both of whom were up with Tampa’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse. McDonnell played only five games and Schmiemann didn’t appear in any, but they gained valuable experience just by being around professional players, practising with them and picking up their habits. “Since camp opened, McDonnell has been working with our strength and conditioning people and with our American League coaches every day and practicing with American League-caliber players every day,” Murray said. “For him, I would say it’s been more beneficial for him than if he’d gone back to Kitchener this year. Not every guy is that way.”

If something good is to come out of this pandemic hockey-
wise, perhaps it will be that the NHL will rework its agreement with the CHL to allow the top teenagers in the world to continue their development in the AHL rather than being stuck in junior until they’re 20. In many cases, players are caught in a developmental limbo where they’re simply too good for the CHL yet not quite good enough for the NHL. It should come as no surprise, then, that the AHL would be the perfect landing spot for some of the best 18- and 19-year-old players in the world. Players such as Seth Jarvis have proven they’re good enough to compete and, in some cases, even excel at the AHL level. Jarvis, a 2020 first-rounder of the Hurricanes, had seven goals and 11 points in nine games with the Wolves before having to go back to junior when the WHL finally got going. Other players have also made significant impacts playing up a cohort, including Zayde Wisdom, Phil Tomasino, Jamie Drysdale and Nick Robertson.

There is surely a deal to be done if there is willingness on both sides. One NHL GM said he would be prepared to explore the possibility of allowing teenagers to play in the AHL, but he would restrict it only to first-round draft picks and players who have already played three years of junior. Perhaps there would also be a provision that they be made available for the World Junior Championship. “You would want to keep it tight,” the GM said. “You want it to be six or seven players a year, not 30 of them.”

Evangelista, meanwhile, spent the middle of March on the ice and in a hotel room in suburban Chicago waiting for his opportunity to play with the Wolves. At one point, his AHL debut was delayed four days because of a COVID-19 outbreak, but his chance finally came on March 28. Having waited more than a year to play, a few more days wasn’t going to make that much of a difference. “I’m sure it will take me a period or two to get back in there, especially jumping from the OHL to the AHL,” Evangelista said. “If I could play maybe 10 games here and then take what I’ve learned and bring it back to London, I think that will be good for me. You’re not just going to go a year without hockey and jump right back in and be the same player. You don’t forget how to play hockey, right? This is what we do.” 

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