The North Remembered: NHLers reflect one-and-done Canadian division

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Tyler Toffoli had just filled the net on back-to-back nights against his former team.

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

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

"The first game I was like, 'This is funny,'" he recalled at last month's NHL/NHLPA media tour. "The second game, I was like, 'OK.' And then by the time we played in them a (third) time in a row, it was: 'I don't want to see you guys anymore.'

"I'm like, 'This is ridiculous.'"

Montreal would win that matchup 5-2 ahead of its journey back east, but scenarios similar to that January road trip would be repeated again and again across the pandemic-necessitated North Division.

A compressed schedule, the same opponents, long flights, no fans and plenty of time spent walled off from the rest of the world.

"Honestly, probably the hardest (season) mentally," Toffoli added.

The NHL rejigged its divisions for the 2020-21 campaign — shortened to 56 games — with the aim of cutting travel and potential COVID-19 exposure in cases where a team might have an outbreak.

But while the league's 24 U.S.-based clubs were mostly clustered regionally in three self-contained circuits, and many saw fans eventually return in significant numbers once vaccines started to roll out, Canada's seven franchises played across four time zones and thousands of kilometres because of coronavirus border rules related to non-essential travel.

With the league pivoting back to a normal schedule and its usual 82 contests in 2021-22, the one-and-done North Division is now just a memory.

It's also one the players won't soon forget.

"Just non-stop hockey every day," Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews said. "If we had two days between games, it was almost like a vacation: 'Holy, this is incredible.'

"That's how we had to do it to make it work."

Canadian-based NHLers certainly aren't looking for sympathy. They got to play the game they love and earn a living most people only dream of — all during a global pandemic.

Edmonton Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse said there were some difficult moments, but they paled in comparison to what was happening across society.

"People were in awful positions, whether it was health-wise or financially," he said. "We got to do so many things that so many other people didn't have the opportunity to do.

"We are some of the few people that had some type of normalcy within our lives. I'm going to look back and say, 'It was a tough time, for sure. But there's nothing really we can complain about.'"

Vancouver Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko, whose team suffered through a massive COVID-19 outbreak that made a tough situation exponentially worse, called it "hopefully the hardest hockey season that I'll have to play."

"I'll tell some stories down the line of what that season actually looked like," he said. "Hopefully my kids won't believe me because it'll sound so outrageous at that point.

"It was crazy."

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

"You get (to the hotel) at 4 p.m. and it's like, 'OK, what am I doing until I fall asleep?'" he said. "There's some guys that are introverts. They like staying inside. I need some outside action to feel fresh when I come to the rink."

So what will Dubois tell his kids about the experience?

"Enjoy the outdoors," he said with a grin. "I would play solitaire by myself, I called everybody in my family."

Ottawa Senators defenceman Thomas Chabot said one of the pluses was getting to play in an all-Canadian division — a unique experience that harkened back to the NHL's Original Six.

"It would have been fun with 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.

"There were rules about playing cards, sitting at tables," he said. "You had to sit with certain people. You really had to find other ways to be personal."

"A whole different season," Calgary Flames forward Andrew Mangiapane added. "It was tough to find spots to build that chemistry."

Marner said the Leafs — and this would no doubt apply to the Senators and Canadiens as well — had difficulty adjusting to the travel compared to what they're used to in the Eastern Conference.

"We would have to go to Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary, some of those places a day before the games," he said. "It's a five-hour flight and then it's a two- or three-hour time change.

"That affected you differently."

Winnipeg centre Mark Scheifele said he gained a new appreciation for little moments that make an NHL season enjoyable.

"Getting to see your family and friends, having them come and visit you ... fans in the building," he said. "The smallest little thing that you might take for granted, I think it gives you a new perspective."

Matthews said despite the numerous challenges, that pandemic regular season — one played exclusively north of the border by Canada's seven teams — is one that will stick.

"The year where COVID happened and all the restrictions and playing only in Canada ... I'll look back on it as being kind of cool," Matthews said. "Not many guys can say that.

"It was different ... we made the most of it."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 6, 2021.

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Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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