It’s one thing to be in the NHL’s return tournament. Notable Island players in that category are Central Saanich’s Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars, Langford’s Tyson Barrie of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Nanaimo’s Dylan Coghlan of the Las Vegas Golden Knights and Port McNeill’s Brett Connolly of the Florida Panthers.
It’s quite another to be on the seven teams which did not qualify, and are therefore out of NHL competition from March to likely December. That is the situation for Brentwood Bay’s Matt Irwin of the Anaheim Ducks. He spent Friday building a swing set for two-year-old son Beckem at the family home in Greater Victoria.
“These are certainly interesting times,” said Irwin, a blueliner with 359 regular-season NHL games over eight seasons with the San Jose Sharks, Nashville Predators, Boston Bruins and Anaheim, including 47 playoff games with the Sharks and Predators.
“With Anaheim not making the cut, it makes for a long off-season, by a few extra months. It’s definitely going to be different.”
Irwin hasn’t been on skates since the abrupt ending of the NHL regular season in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He plans to hit a local ice rink in the next few weeks.
“I am sure they are planning on safe ways for the players on the seven teams off since March to get back into it in ways so that we don’t get hurt,” said the 32-year-old veteran, about his eventual return to play in a training camp that feels far off.
Safety must also be considered on the viral level.
“I have some concerns about COVID, not just as a pro athlete, but as a human being,” said Irwin.
“We are very fortunate to be on the Island. It’s scary in the U.S. right now. It’s real. The NHL wants to get in the full 82 games next season. We’ve seen what’s happened in baseball. But I believe they [NHL Players Association and the league] will try to take care of us and keep us safe.”
The NHL’s and NBA’s “bubble” approach — playing respectively at limited venues in Edmonton, Toronto and Orlando — seems to be working better than Major League Baseball’s somewhat-troubled operational plan of open travel to play far and wide across the U.S.
“I am enjoying watching the hockey,” said Irwin.
“The players I keep in touch with in the tournament are enjoying it, too, and say it has been very intense hockey.”
It’s also important for society’s psyche.
The viewership stats released this week by Sportsnet show Canadians hungrily watching the return of the NHL and NBA, with the hockey and Raptors basketball accounting for 10.7 million viewers — 29 per cent of the Canadian population — on the reopening weekend last Saturday and Sunday.
“It shows again why sports are such an integral part of everyday life for people,” said Irwin.
He’s happy to be part of it overall, if not currently. It’s a journey with many bends in the road. Irwin was traded from Nashville to Anaheim on Feb. 24 in exchange for German Olympian and blueliner Korbinian Holzer. The Island product got in nine games for Anaheim before the world shut down a month later.
“The trade was bittersweet because we had made a lot of good friends in Nashville,” said Irwin, who met his wife, Chantel, during his junior days in Nanaimo with the Clippers.
But what’s not to like about Anaheim?
“The beaches, the weather . . . everything is fantastic.”
So was the opportunity on the ice.
“The Ducks gave me the chance to play every night, with lots of minutes, including the penalty kill,” said Irwin.
“Everything was great in southern California.”
Until the pandemic hit.
Now, Irwin is waiting for a return to something approaching normalcy down there. But anytime back home on the Island with family is precious, he said, during a break in building the swing set for his son.