The NHL is back - here are six things to look out for

Two isolation bubbles, an apparent racial equality quandary, a new televisual experience and, hopefully, great hockey all play their part in the NHL restart.

By Rory Jiwani

Ice hockey's NHL has returned after more than four months away with the start of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.

The regular season was curtailed on 12 March due to the COVID-19 pandemic with the 189 remaining games eventually cancelled and the bottom four teams in the Eastern Conference and the last three in the West eliminated.

They have now gone straight to playoff preliminaries with the top four teams in each conference meeting once in a round-robin format to decide playoff seedings.

The next eight in each conference play best-of-five qualifiers with the winners joining the top four in the playoffs.

All of the matches are taking place behind closed doors in two separate Canadian hub cities - the Western Conference at Edmonton's Rogers Place with the East at the Scotiabank Arena, the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Stanley Cup Qualifiers got underway on Saturday (1 August) with the Carolina Hurricanes defeating the New York Rangers 3-2 in Toronto.

Then the Chicago Blackhawks beat the Edmonton Oilers 6-4 with Czech wing Dominik Kubalik - who played at PyeongChang 2018 - scoring five points (two goals and three assists), a new record for a player making his postseason debut.

As the NHL gets back underway, here are six things to look out for up until the Stanley Cup's scheduled conclusion in early October.

Life in two bubbles

The 24 teams - 12 in the Western Conference, 12 in the Eastern Conference - had to report to their respective hub cities on 26 July.

Each team - consisting up to 31 players plus 52 staff and executives - takes up one floor of a designated hotel with strict rules regarding access and social distancing.

All players have been undergoing daily testing, temperature and symptom checks since arriving in Edmonton or Toronto, and must wear masks outside of their hotel rooms.

A positive test, of which there have been none so far, would lead the team member to self-isolate in their hotel room for 10 days or after two consecutive daily negative tests.

It's something of a closeted existence, but the players appear to be keeping themselves occupied.

The NHL's racial equality dilemma

The Black Lives Matter movement has been a notable accompaniment to North American pro sports leagues returning to action.

And while the NHL has adopted a stance encouraging racial equality, the league has conspicuously avoided mentioning the slogan itself or its acronym BLM.

Instead, it has listed 'Black Lives' along with 'nurses' and 'frontline workers' among things #WeSkateFor.

Ahead of the West opener in Edmonton, there was a ceremony in which Matt Dumba of the Minnesota Wild - the team based in Minneapolis-Saint Paul where George Floyd's death which triggered the rise in BLM protests occurred - spoke about the fight for racial equality.

Dumba then became the first NHL player to kneel during the American national anthem, following the lead of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Unlike the NFL and basketball's NBA, the NHL remains dominated by white athletes although there have been high-profile black players in recent years like Olympic gold medallists Jarome Iginla and PK Subban.

Its fanbase is also largely white and the league appears to have deliberately omitted BLM messaging so as not to potentially offend large swathes of its audience, leaving it up to players to make their own stands.

The Hockey Diversity Alliance was formed by seven current and former players in late June "to eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey" but its co-head, San Jose Sharks wing Evander Kane, says they have been unable to agree on issues with the NHL.

Kane told, "No matter what they do or say, it’s all going to fall on deaf ears with me and every other person in the HDA because the league has made no effort to support its own Black players.

"Seriously, one of the #WeSkateFor things in a presentation was '#WeSkateFor These Moments'. I'm not even kidding. It's disappointing the lack of interest we're facing in addressing systemic racism in our sport."

The NHL's Kim Davis responded, "To the assertion that the league has made ‘no effort to support its own Black players’, I’m not sure what this means — generally throughout the years?

"Our overarching social justice banner is #WeSkateFor Equality, under which we will specifically amplify ending racism and skating for Black Lives."

Minnesota Wild's Matt Dumba takes a knee during the American national anthem flanked by Chicago's Malcolm Subban and Edmonton's Darnell Nurse

Look out for future Olympic stars

NHL players missed PyeongChang 2018, but they will be back for Beijing 2022.

On 11 July, as well as ratifying the Return to Play Plan for the NHL restart, the NHL and NHL Players' Association agreed a new Collective Bargaining Agreement including a commitment to players taking part in the next two Winter Olympic Games.

The first time NHL players competed at the Games was Nagano 1998 when the Czech Republic claimed a shock gold medal as immortalised in the Olympic Channel film 'The Nagano Tapes'.

They participated in five consecutive Winter Olympics but the NHL declined to suspend its season for two and a half weeks to allow its players to go to PyeongChang.

But now agreement has been reached with Edmonton Oilers and Germany forward Leon Draisaitl telling the NHL, "I think it was a big deal, it is a big deal to all of us. I think we're all happy with the outcome that we'll all be able to hopefully participate in it."

The Olympic Athletes from Russia defeated Germany to take gold in Korea but the return of NHL stars means the likes of Canada, gold medallists in 2002, 2010 and 2014, 2006 champions Sweden and the USA will be right back in the mix.

Two high scorers to watch

While the likes of Sidney Crosby and Henrik Lundqvist already have gold medals to their names, there are several NHL stars in line to make Olympic debuts in Beijing.

Edmonton captain Connor McDavid has been one of the standout players of the league in recent years and he opened his team's account in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers against Chicago.

Twice the league's leading scorer and twice winner of the Ted Lindsay Award for players' player of the year, centre McDavid also won the 2016 World Championship with Canada.

In the East, Boston Bruins' David Pastrnak tied for top goalscorer in the regular season with a certain Alex Ovechkin.

The Czech right-wing, nicknamed Pasta, is a great skater and shooter and very quick.

Hockey in August?

This is not the time of year for ice hockey. Far from it.

The season normally concludes in June, but this year's exceptional circumstances have led to a drastic rescheduling of the calendar.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs usually coincide with baseball's MLB season, but this year they also clash with the NBA - which restarted last Thursday (30 July) - and potentially the start of the NFL gridiron season.

In hockey-mad Canada, that's not a problem as far as audiences are concerned.

But in the United States, it's a different story with the 2019 Stanley Cup Finals attracting an average of just five million viewers, according to Statista, compared to 14 million for baseball's World Series and 15 million for last year's NBA Finals.

The speed of the puck and keeping track of rolling substitutions are among issues which have always made ice hockey something of an acquired taste to TV viewers.

Throw in more competition from other sports and that all-important audience share figure could make grim reading for NHL executives and sponsors.

The Winnipeg Jets and Calgary Flames play in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers inside an empty Rogers Place, Edmonton

The 'made for TV' experience

With its obvious shortcomings on the small screen, ice hockey does have the chance to innovate with no fans in the arenas.

More cameras from different viewpoints - including a 360-degree crane camera - and lights have been brought in while empty seats are covered by giant tarpaulins bearing team names and league logos.

Fake crowd noise is a combination of previous NHL broadcasts and the library of NHL video game developer EA Sports, while effects microphones will emphasise the sounds of skates turning and players slamming into the boards.

With no crowd to drown out the occasionally robust language on the ice, there will be a slight time delay on the TV broadcast.

NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer has worked hard on trying to make the matches as close to normal for the viewer at home.

He told ESPN, "We're never going to have this kind of creative freedom. Without fans, it makes it different.

"I know there are going to be people that just want to watch the game. And when the puck drops, for the most part, they're just going to watch the game.

"We're not messing with the game. We're just trying to make it look pretty." - NHL chief content officer Steve Mayer to ESPN