Canadian NHL teams embrace return to normal divisions |

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TORONTO (AP) – Tyler Toffoli had just filled the net on consecutive nights against his former team.

The Montreal winger scored a hat trick in a 6-5 shootout loss to Vancouver and followed 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 due to COVID-19 restrictions before another meeting with the Canucks in an empty Rogers Arena.

“The first game, I was like ‘This is funny’,” he told The Canadian Press. “The second game, I was like ‘OK’. And then by the time we played it 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 this game 5-2 before returning east, but scenarios similar to that January road trip would repeat themselves over and over in the North Division. Compressed schedules, the same opponents, long flights, no fans and a lot of time alone.

“Honestly, probably the most difficult (season) mentally,” Toffoli said.

The NHL has changed all of its divisions for 2020-21 – a season shortened to 56 games – in an effort to reduce travel and potential exposure to COVID-19. The league’s 24 U.S. teams were mostly clustered regionally in three stand-alone circuits, and many fans eventually saw them return in significant numbers once the vaccines began rolling out.

This was not the case in Canada, where the seven teams played across four time zones and thousands of miles due to coronavirus border rules related to non-essential travel.

The unique North Division is just a memory, though players won’t soon forget it.

“Just non-stop hockey every day,” said Toronto star Auston Matthews. “If we had two days between games, it was almost like a vacation.”

Edmonton defenseman Darnell Nurse said there had been some tough times but they were pale in comparison to what was going on in the company.

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

Vancouver goaltender Thatcher Demko, whose team suffered from a massive COVID-19 outbreak, called it “I hope for the toughest hockey season I will have to play.”

“I’m going to tell a few stories later about what this season really looked like,” he said. “I hope my kids won’t believe me because it will seem so outrageous at this point. It was crazy.”

Ottawa defenseman Thomas Chabot said one of the perks is playing in an all-Canadian division – a unique experience reminiscent of the original Six of the NHL.

“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 made it difficult to bond with his teammates.

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

Marner said the Maple Leafs – and that would no doubt apply to the Senators and the Canadiens – were having a hard time adjusting to the trip compared to what they’re used to in the Eastern Conference.

“We had 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 change of time. It affected you differently.

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

“Seeing your family and friends, bringing them over to visit you… fans in the building,” he said. “Any little thing you could take for granted, I think it gives you a new perspective.”

Matthews said that despite the many challenges, this pandemic regular season is one that will last.

“The year COVID happened and all the restrictions and playing only in Canada… I will consider it to be pretty cool,” Matthews said. “Not many guys can say that. It was different … we made the most of it.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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