The 11 Biggest Hockey Stories of 2019-20

By Sal Barry, Tim Parish, Blake Isaacs, Jim Howard & Kyle Scully

Before we turn our attention to the upcoming hockey season, we wanted to take a look back at the 2019-20 NHL season. And what a crazy season it was! A global pandemic halted the league for the first time in over 100 years. Players spoke up and spoke out against racial injustice in the United States. A Zamboni driver became a goaltending hero.  And that’s just the start of it. 

The past season was the longest NHL season, too, starting on October 2, 2019 and ending almost a full year later on September 28, 2020. The team at Puck Junk rounded up what they thought were the biggest stories of the 2019-20 season. Like the fictional band Spinal Tap, we couldn’t settle on just 10 — we turned it up to 11. So, here are the 11 biggest stories of the 2019-20 NHL season. 

1. COVID-19, The Pause and The Bubble League

No sports story from 2020 — hell, no story from 2020, period — could top the COVID-19 Pandemic. The Coronavirus didn’t just stop major league sports in its tracks, but the entire world as well. Not long after the NBA suspended its season, the NHL followed suit by putting its own season on “pause” back on March 12. After that, most of the United States issued “shelter-at-home” recommendations, while businesses were shut down as cases of, and deaths caused by, COVID-19 increased.

But at the end of May, the NHL had a plan: 24 teams would compete in the postseason, sequestering players, officials and team staff in one of two hub cities. A “Bubble League,” not unlike what the NBA was doing. Games were held around the clock during the early part of the playoffs, with sometimes as many as six games per day starting as early as 11 a.m. (Which was a dream come true if you are a hockey fan who works from home…or is unemployed.)

After a grueling, two-month schedule that saw teams playing every other day, the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup. And as amazing as their playoff run was, it was still overshadowed by the fact that the NHL pulled off it’s “Bubble League” without anyone being diagnosed with COVID-19 once the postseason started. – Sal Barry @puckjunk

See Puck Junk Podcast #51 for more about the NHL pausing its season. 

2. Tampa Bay Lightning Win the Stanley Cup

For three-and-a-half months, it looked like COVID-19 was going to keep the Tampa Bay Lightning from its destiny. The Lightning, who lost in the Stanley Cup Finals to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015, were the popular choice of who would — or who should — win the Stanley Cup almost every year since. 

But the Lightning couldn’t make a return trip to the Finals despite having a talented roster. Two years ago, the team lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals to the Washington Capitals, who went on to beat the Vegas Golden Knights to win the Cup. Last year, the Lightning were the best team during the regular season, only to be swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. Coulda, shoulda, woulda. 

Not even COVID-19 could stop Tampa Bay this season, though. Yes, the NHL did “pause” its season, but once it started up again, there was no stopping the Lightning. The Bolts never faced an elimination game during the playoffs, exorcised past demons by beating the Blue Jackets, dispatched the President Trophy-winning Bruins, and won six of eight overtime games — including a 5OT-thriller against the Jackets. 

Never mind that the Lightning had a poor showing and lost Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals to the Dallas Stars. The team quickly figured things out, equally drowning out the Stars with flashes of offensive brilliance and smothering the Stars by limiting their shots on net. Heck, Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasielevsky even shut out the Stars in the Cup-clinching sixth game. 

Winning the Stanley Cup amid a global pandemic while playing in a bubble league is historic enough, but the Lightning made their postseason run even more memorable. Alternate captain and top defenseman Victor Hedman was named the playoff MVP after scoring 10 playoff goals — third-most by a defenseman in NHL history. And team captain Steven Stamkos, who hadn’t played since February 11 due to an injury, made an emotional and inspiring comeback for Game 3 of the Finals. And even though he played just three minutes, Stamkos still still scored an important goal for the Bolts. Hollywood screenwriters couldn’t have written it better. – Sal Barry @puckjunk

3. Don Cherry Gets Canned

As many of you are probably aware, the dulcet tones that filled the airwaves for 38 years on Hockey Night In Canada were silenced on November 9, 2019. Don Cherry, one of the most popular sports personalities, for better or for worse, was no stranger to controversy.  The 85-year-old has been an outspoken proponent of the “good old days” of hockey as well as a constant, often xeno-centric, supporter of all things Canadian for his entire career.  Whether it was coming after Alex Ovechkin for excessive celebrations, disparaging the entire Russian Federation hockey program, calling out officiating on national TV, or criticizing Canadian team GMs for not having enough players from Planet Maple Leaf on the roster, Don has years of front line training in speaking his mind. 

But this time, even dapper Don’s obnoxiously fantastic wardrobe couldn’t save him from his comments he made on air during a “Coach’s Corner” segment of the show.  When discussing the upcoming Remembrance Day in Canada with co-host Ron MacLean, Cherry very adamantly drew attention to what he saw as a lack of disrespect from the people of Toronto when it came to displaying poppy’s to honor the country’s fallen military heroes.  He said, “You people…that come here, whatever it is, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey.  At least you could pay a couple of bucks for poppies or something like that. These guys paid for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada.” 

That statement, as well as the many that preceded it, probably would not have garnered much attention in the past but not this time. Sportsnet viewed his statements as nothing more than divisive hate speech and relieved the former NHL coach of his duties, setting off a firestorm of debate that still comes up today. 

Cherry’s hero/anti-hero character brought both support and ire from both sides of the coin with people speaking out against his anti-European (and at times misogynistic) views and many applauding him for saying the things that live in the mind but never dare to leave the mouth. Regardless of what stance you take (or took), it was clear that Don Cherry’s schtick had run its course. 

Or had it?  You can still find Don, but now on his podcast, the Grapevine along with his son and grandson. He still touts the show as him “telling it like it is” without the filter.  I’ve listened to quite a few shows and to me, this is the Don I missed, the story-telling Don that waxes on about tales of his life in hockey. – Tim Parish @TheRealDFG

Listen to Puck Junk Podcast #32 for more about Don Cherry’s Firing

4. Seattle Unleashes the Kraken

Seattle, Washington is known for Starbucks, the Seahawks and Dr. Frasier Crane. In 2021, Seattle will trade in its footballs for hockey pucks. The team considered over 1,200 team names and received 215,000 fan votes before Seattle selected a name with mythological implications: the Seattle Kraken.

On June 23, Seattle unleashed the Kraken at a lavish event at the Climate Pledge Arena. The team’s central “S” logo is an attempt to honor the Seattle Metropolitans hockey team, which won the Stanley Cup in 1917 and folded in 1924. The primary logo color is deep sea blue highlighted by ice blue, shadow blue, boundless blue and red alert.

Leagues rarely expand nowadays and with the NHL reaching 32 teams, thanks to Seattle’s entry, it’s unlikely we will see further expansion for several years. This recent naming ritual will be one to remember. The next “new” NHL team mane will more than likely be a relocated franchise than a new team. If this is the last new team name to grace an NHL score sheets for the next decade, the NHL went out on a high note. – Kyle Scully @socal_scully

5. David Ayres Becomes Greatest EBUG of All-Time

All of us who count ourselves as sports fans have all dreamed of playing at the highest level of the sport, or at the very least stepping out in front of the hometown crowd to the cheers and adulation in hopes that the newspaper headline the next morning reads, “Local boy/girl makes good.” Casey at the Bat is a well-known fictional poem of this going wrong, but one of the earliest pieces of popular culture to capture that dream and drive of the passionate sports fan.

On February 22 of this batshit crazy year, not long before the NHL and every other major sporting event in the world was put on hold, David Ayres was that local boy who made good. 

In a Maple Leafs-Hurricanes game that night, a series of mishaps left the the ‘Canes goalie pairing of Petr Mrazek and James Riemer injured in the first half of the game. There is almost always a contingency plan for these situations, and rarely does the Emergency Backup Goalie (EBUG) actually have to step onto the ice. It does happen occasionally, and usually there is a strong swell of support for this amateur, with both teams on the ice and the crowd in the stands.  He is living the dream of thousands, if not millions of fans. Rarely is it that an EBUG has to step in and play more than half of an NHL game, facing some of the deadliest goal scorers employed by one team.

While the score was an unexpected 3-1 in favor of Carolina, a sense of dread overtook Caniac Nation watching from afar as Mr. Ayres stepped onto the ice to warm up. News spread across every major sports news outlet of the situation at hand and many people turned their sets and attention to the “local boy stepping up to bat,” even if it was to defend against the home town team.

The visiting Hurricanes all came to offer thanks and support for the visibly nervous new recruit. The Leafs, smelling blood in the water, attacked the net soon after the puck was dropped.  The Hurricanes tightening their defensive game managed to pot an insurance goal first, but the John Tavares Experience is one that can’t denied for long and on his first shot at David, the Goliath goal scorer reduced the lead to 4-2.

Close by the sturdy batsman
the ball unheeded sped—
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey.
“Strike one!” the umpire said.

Carolina’s skaters all skated to their new netminder and to remind him that everything would be OK, and just a have fun; enjoy the experience. The Most Hated Man in Long Island has scored on every goalie in the league.

Less than two minute later, the Leafs scored again. Tyson Barrie blasted a shot that a well-meaning ‘Canes d-man blocked. Unfortunately, the puck deflected right onto Ayres’ doorstep and was swatted in by Leafs’ rookie Pierre Engvall for an easy goal. 

He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew;
But Casey still ignored it and the umpire said, “Strike two!”

Now, the Hurricanes only led by one. But during intermission, David Ayres assured the Canes that his nerves were settling, and this was the truth.

For the rest of the game, this Zamboni driver shut the door eight times during the remainder of the game. The Hurricanes skaters did their part in suppressing as many chances as they could, on top of scoring another two goals, but the true story was the calm under pressure that this local boy conjured.

Fans of the sport and people oblivious to the NHL cheered for him as the clocked ticked down, living vicariously through his actions. Cheers and applause rained down globally to the everyman, including the Maple Leafs team and their fans.  High-fives and hugs were shared by strangers everywhere. The next week would be a whirlwind of press and appearances for the Dog having its Day, making the most of moment in the spotlight. 

This mighty Casey sure as hell didn’t strike out.  – Jim Howard

Listen to Puck Junk Podcast #48 for more about David Ayres

6. Peters Fired for Past Racial Slurs

Before the murder of George Floyd shook the entire world, a horrific incident of racism was brought to light in the hockey world. During the 2009-10 season, Bill Peters, then the head coach of the Rockford IceHogs, uttered horrific racial epithets towards one of his own players, Akim Aliu.

Aliu was born in Nigeria and raised in Canada. He spoke up about his experience being racially abused by Peters after Mike Babcock was fired by Toronto. When Babcock was fired, many former players, including Mike Commodore and Johan Franzen, shared their own stories about the way they were treated by Babcock. Babcock’s treatment towards the two was not racially motivated, but, it is what led to Aliu coming forward.

Soon after Aliu went public, other players backed Aliu and a media firestorm began. Not only did players corroborate Aliu’s story, they also shared their own stories on how they were abused both physically and emotionally by Peters throughout his career. Peters then issued an apology, not to Aliu, but to the Flames organization, and then resigned.

What happened to Aliu was terrible and disgusting. It’s scary tot think that coaches, who are hired to protect their players, are sometimes the ones hurting them. Since then, Aliu has become a voice for the black community in hockey. He was vocal during the murder of George Floyd and shooting of Jacob Blake, and even met with commissioner Gary Bettman about his experience.

While the NHL has dragged their feet in implementing change to prevent this kind of treatment, we can only hope Aliu set a precedent that it’s okay for players to come forward and this kind of behavior cannot be tolerated, by anyone. It’s time for the NHL to put their money where their mouth is and prove hockey is for everyone. – Blake Isaacs @bisaacs1995

Listen to Puck Junk Podcast #34 for more about Bill Peters and Akim Aliu

7. JR Gets Himself in Trouble

Love them or hate them, the guys over on Barstool Sports podcast Spittin’ Chiclets are hockey royalty when it comes to making the interview rounds. The show is known for its irreverent humor and discussions about hockey, life, sports, betting, and general “guy stuff,” to use an overused phrase. It is also probably the closest thing most fans will ever get to an actual professional hockey locker room experience. This is one of the reasons why many of their guests seem to feel much more open and honest with their discussions and you won’t hear the usual “pucks in deep” talk.  But sometimes, things can go south.

Former Blackhawk, Flyer, 2x Coyote, Shark, King and at the time, NHL analyst for NBC, Jeremy Roenick, joined the guys for a show on December 19, 2019.  This wasn’t the first time JR had been on the show.  He had appeared before, talking hockey, his job, his family and anything else the guys wanted to discuss. Always known as the jokester in his playing days, he even once told a very detailed story of the epic prank he played on Torey Mitchell while they were in Las Vegas (and it is EPIC, so go find it).

This latest episode took a different turn though, as JR went a little “blue,” as the comedians used to say.  He was describing his personal relationship with co-worker Kathryn Tappen and his wife, describing Kathryn as the most professional sports personality he has ever worked with. He then continued describing their summer vacation to Portugal, making quite a few references to his thought of always wanting a three-some with both of the “blonde bombshells.” He also joked of his equal-opportunity love making desire for another co-worker, saying he wouldn’t mind taking a crack at Patrick Sharp if given the opportunity since he was “so beautiful.”

In case you needed proof.

While many listeners and fans of the show saw through most of this as mindless humor, the executives at NBC did not. Neither did those that supplied the thousands of carefully-penned and thought-out pieces of literary prose directed at NBC’s various social media platforms (otherwise known as hate mail). 

In today’s social climate, the pressure to hold people accountable for their actions outside of the work environment, but while still under employment of corporations — especially high-profile or ones of public interest — has never been higher. A few days later, NBC issued a statement expressing their disappointment in JR’s comments and suspended him indefinitely without pay. Tappan, admitting that she would still remain friends with JR, also publicly stated she found his comments inappropriate. Regardless of apologies, both public and private, Roenick has not graced the airwaves of NBC, NBC Sports, or any of their affiliates since the incident. – Tim Parish @TheRealDFG

Listen to Puck Junk Podcast #39 for more about Jeremy Roenick’s suspension

8. “Mad Mike” Gets Booted 

Never the straight-laced, analytics guy in the studio, Mike Milbury generally takes the path he is most comfortable with and that’s speaking whatever comes to his head at that moment. That is exactly why NBC brought him in; to be the antithesis of all others before him.

Now I could feasibly drone on with dozens of puns and bad jokes related to footwear and their use as weapons to describe “Mad” Mike Milbury, but his actions pretty much speak for themselves. Despite his long, long history of saying some “not-so-PC” remarks either on the air, in interviews, in the studio, or in various articles and bylines, he always seemed to get a pass as the blathering idiot that no one listens to anyway (at least in my mind).  For the sake of this becoming the Slam Mike Milbury Epitaph of Infinite Sorrow [patent pending], I’ll stick to the most recent event; the one that finally brought the hammer down on his NBC career, for now.

On August 20, 2020, during the Islanders 4-0 shellacking of the Washington Capitals, conversation began amongst the co-hosts of the broadcast, which included Milbury and longtime broadcaster John Forslund. Since the unprecedented bubble-life began, varieties of stories about players adapting to their new, unique environments came to light. Forslund mentioned, “if you think about it, it’s a terrific environment,” describing the players that are team oriented and enjoy being engrossed in routine.

To which Milbury replied, “Not even any woman here to disrupt your concentration.” I’m pretty sure no shoe was going to beat that statement back from whence it came. 

NBC Sports quickly took to their social media outlets, relaying their disappointment in Milbury’s comment, calling it “insensitive” and “insulting” and that they planned to handle it accordingly. Mike shortly released a statement, apologizing (once again) for his remarks, regretting his mistake, and stepping down from the NBC team for the rest of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Citing his comments as being irreverent and adding flavor to the broadcast, many of Mad Mike’s proponents took to the socials to defend his statements, but this time it was just too much. 

Lest we forget the 2012 comment about then Penguins coach Dan Bylsma who he said should have “taken off his skirt and gone over there” to fight then Flyers head  coach Peter Laviolette.

Or maybe the time he made light of concussion issues, using Sidney Crosby as an example and calling him a “punk?”

How about the time when he affectionately referred to the Sedin twins as Thelma and Louise? 

Or the time he referred to golfer Tiger Woods as Tiger “Wuss” and told him he would send a goon squad to “tidy” him up a bit after he made a comment about hockey players injury recovery (I actually didn’t mind that one). 

Still not enough? Lets see…calling Pierre McGuire, on air, a “soccer mom” for his opinion on a dangerous play, repeatedly using some form of the phrase “hit ‘em with your purse,” monologuing on the “pansification” of the game, oh, and don’t forgot the assault charge that was later dropped against him for grabbing and berating a pee-wee hockey player (they are 12 at that level in case you were wondering).

Again, whether you picked a side in the Milbury case (or his one before this, or the one before that, or the one before that, etc), is irrelevant when the Cancel Culture Squad mobilizes. Milbury decided (or was told) the attention he brought was too much of a distraction and he didn’t want to “interfere with the athletes as they try to win the greatest trophy in sports.”  Well at least he got that part right. – Tim Parish @TheRealDFG

Listen to Puck Junk Podcast Episode #68 for more on Mike Milbury’s mistake

9. NHL Players React to Racial Injustice

The United States, and all sports leagues within, were significantly affected by the senseless murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN and police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, WI. Both men were murdered by police officers abusing their power. The murders sent shockwaves throughout the world and sparked protests all over. The hockey community was not immune to those protests.

The NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks were the first team to refuse to play after the Blake was shot by police in Kenosha, WI, which isn’t too far from Milwaukee. The Bucks put their foot down and refused to serve as a distraction from the racism epidemic happening in America. The rest of the NBA followed suit and so did the NHL. NHL players decided not to play their games scheduled for August 27 and August 28 and forced viewers to think about racism and what they can do to stop it. Sports cannot serve as a distraction from what is really important.

The protests amplified the voices of the few black players in the NHL, including Matt Dumba and Evander Kane. Thankfully, when the play on the ice stopped, white players stood by the wayside and let their black teammates represent them. Pierre LeBrun reported that Dumba and Kane received over 100 calls from other players the afternoon of August 27. It was refreshing to see that a league almost exclusively white supported their black teammates to share their thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

Protests occurred on the ice, too. A small minority of players, including Dallas’ Tyler Seguin and Vegas’ Robin Lehner took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality. While it was great to see some of the league’s stars taking a knee, it’s important to remember that the first player to kneel during the anthem was former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick is still without a job and sued the NFL for collusion as he and many believed he was black-balled due to his protest.

While it’s positive to see that NHL players are working to listen and understand their black teammates and the black community, we still have a long way to go. – Blake Isaacs @bisaacs1995

Listen to Puck Junk Podcast Episode #60 for more on the NHL and Racial Justice.

10. Pekka Rinne Scores a Goalie Goal

What was once thought to be impossible — a goalie shooting the puck down the ice for a goal — has happened just eight times over the past 33 years. Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne became just the seventh goalie in NHL history to corral the puck, lob it 200 feet down the ice, and score on an empty net when he did so against the Blackhawks on January 9. The other goalies to pull off this feat are Ron Hextall (twice), Martin Brodeur, Chris Osgood, Jose Theodore, Evgeni Nabokov and Mike Smith. Saves are good, and shutouts are great, but goalie goals are truly special.  – Sal Barry @puckjunk

11. Gallant Axed by Knights

Coaches get hired and fired all the time in professional sports. Usually, this is a direct result of player performance and the lack of winning the respective big games (there are exceptions…see Bill Peters, mentioned above). The NHL is not immune to this either and it becomes the Central Park carousel more often than not, as bench bosses just exchange one set of colors for another.

In the uniquely modified 2019-20 season alone, there were nine head coach jobs vacated and filled. Dallas (Montgomery out, Bowness in), Calgary (Peters out, Ward in), Toronto (Babcock out, Keefe in), New Jersey (Hynes out, Nasreddine in), San Jose (DeBoer out, Boughner in), Nashville (Laviolette out, Hynes in), Minnesota (Boudreau out, Evason in), and Washington (Reirden out, Laviolette in) all made a move at some point in the season. But looking over that list, you will see one was left off. The most curiously bizarre and head-scratching move had to be the firing of Gerard Gallant in Vegas.

The timing of the move couldn’t be more baffling. Here is an NHL proven coach that took an expansion team in its inaugural season all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. Expansion teams tend to feature misfits and castoffs of the other teams . Despite the lack of superstar power on the roster, Gallant was somehow able to make this into a playoff team. That feat alone should have bought him at least a few years behind the bench.

But just like any coach, Gallant doesn’t play the game and one of the biggest reasons for the early season inconsistency was team defense, both in goaltending and the spotty defensive outings in front of the net minders. With the rotating crop of goalies that filled in for Marc-Andre Fleury over the last two seasons, you would have thought someone would have stepped up. However, that wasn’t the case. Not until later in the year did Robin Lehner emerge as the leader but that was long after Gallant was fired.

I don’t know that the full breath of the reason for his termination will ever be known. The team is run by hockey people, not business executives. Kelly McCrimmon, former player and coach, said after the move that it was hockey decision that they felt was necessary to move to the next level. McCrimmon’s interviews after were filled with vagaries and misdirection because this clearly was a decision that had less to do with success and more to do with intangibles, like personality or coaching style for instance. It was no secret that Gallant didn’t really embrace advanced statistics and analytics like Pete DeBoer, his replacement. Couple that with the fact DeBoer took two teams to the Finals in each of his first two seasons with both the Sharks and Devils, and you may have your answer. We may never know the real story. – Tim Parish @TheRealDFG

What do you think was the biggest story from the 2019-20 season? Leave a comment and let us know. 

NOTE: This story has been updated because it inaccurately stated that Jacob Blake was murdered. Blake was shot by police but did not die. We regret the error. 

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