Dave Feschuk: The absence of hockey only makes the NHL conference call grow fonder

In pre-pandemic days, any time a complaint was registered in the direction of the NHL’s divisional playoff format, the league offered a go-to counter-argument.

Sure, there are issues of fairness that make the format, to some eyes, in need of a drastic overhaul. Among its many crimes against logic, it often puts two of the better teams in the league on a second-round collision course, which clearly devalues the regular-season achievements of such squads.

But the league has stuck with it since 2013-14, in part, because, for all its flaws, the bracket-style system has shown some facility for building animosity and creating rivalries. Three separate seven-game series between the Maple Leafs and Bruins in the past seven post-seasons would be presumably a case in point.

Divisions, in other words, are supposed to be bubbling cauldrons of genuine hate — or, at the very least, handy frameworks for manufactured dislike. At least, so seemed to be the hope of Monday’s league-organized video conference featuring four players from four Atlantic Division teams, among them Maple Leafs captain John Tavares and Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara.

More than once during the call, the NHL-appointed moderator encouraged the NHLers — Detroit’s Dylan Larkin and Ottawa’s Brady Tkachuk rounded out the foursome — to feel free to make reference to one of the attending divisional counterparts with something approaching an unkind word. Spice up the afternoon with a little dose of trash talk. Entertain the isolated masses with a taste of an authentic NHL chirp.

At one point, each of the players was asked to identify something about the on-ice habits of each of the call’s participants that drives him crazy.

“Don’t be kind,” the moderator helpfully suggested

It was an honourable attempt. Alas, what followed was a 40-minute exercise in mutual admiration. Outside of Tavares making a joking reference to absorbing a Tkachuk cheap shot to the ribs earlier this season — “Thanks for that one,” the Leafs captain said — the players mostly offered unequivocal tributes to the greatness of their co-participants. Tavares complimented Larkin’s speed and Chara’s physicality on a day he received nothing but respectful praise in return.

“There might be no worse situation than being stuck along the boards and angled off by the big man and you know you’ve got to embrace one of those bodychecks,” Tavares said of the six-foot-nine Chara. “And you’re just hoping that everything stays in place.”

So much for hot-blooded hatred. Maybe the only thing more difficult than forecasting when the world might return to normalcy is finding the holy-grail press-conference question that might actually get one NHL player to speak vaguely ill — or even jokingly so — about another NHL player.

“That’s enough complimenting each other. Let’s get into it a little bit,” the moderator insisted.

Not long after, the players were asked which of their teammates they’d most like to be quarantined with, and which they’d least like to spend isolated time with.

“Probably Mitchy (Marner) or Justin Holl,” Tavares said, answering the first part of the question. “The type of energy they bring around the locker room. How much fun they have every day. And just their ability to turn any environment into something anyone would enjoy. They just bring that enthusiasm not only to the rink but just kind of when we’re travelling, doing whatever we’re doing, all the dead time we have as players. Definitely two guys that are a lot of fun to be around.”

As for answering the second part of the query — Tavares seemed dumbfounded by the task.

“The least? Um. Good question. Um. Can’t think of anyone right off the top of my head,” Tavares said. “But, yeah, you might have to come back to me on that one.”

Suffice it to say the questioner did not come back to Tavares on that one. The other players on the call, to their credit, at least found it within their scope to identify a teammate who might somehow recover from a gentle bit of public ribbing.

Detroit’s Dylan Larkin said he’d least like to be quarantined with teammate Tyler Bertuzzi because Bertuzzi is a “slob” who’d make a big mess. Ottawa’s Brady Tkachuk said he’d rather not be bunkered with teammate Colin White, because White’s insistence on the same meal every day — steak and mashed potatoes, allegedly — wouldn’t suit him.

And Chara offered what amounted to a showstopper when he identified longtime Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask as his least appealing quarantine co-resident.

“The way he farts. I don’t know if I could (handle it). Just the smell is awful,” Chara said, speaking of Rask. “He likes his chicken wings. And after chicken wings, I sit behind him on the bus. I’ve got to tell you, like, I’ve got to control myself sometimes.”

At one point Tavares assured conference participants that he and his teammates do, indeed, share the occasional good-natured barb. “We can’t leave each other too long without giving it to one another,” he said. But as for giving even good-natured grief to a teammate with the rest of the world watching – um, not so much.

Maybe the moment wasn’t right for levity. Tavares spoke of having friends from his days in New York who are now living “right in the fire” of the coronavirus.

“I hope everybody’s staying safe,” he said.

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And Tavares, too, acknowledged a heartening upside to being away from the game he loves. He’s spending more time with his wife and six-month-old son at their GTA home.

“When we’re travelling through the year, through the season, you’re in and out so quickly, you don’t really get to experience that consistency until the off-season,” Tavares said. “So just having that time to kind of be around him on a daily basis and to be able to help out and spend time with him has been fantastic.”

It was a great answer filled with worldly perspective. But it wasn’t exactly what the NHL was hoping for. As the moderator lamented as the call wore on, this after it became clear verbal fireworks would be in short supply: “Too many polite hockey players.”

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