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NHL’s quarantine video calls provide rare, refreshing glimpses into stars’ personalities

Patrick Kane’s conference call with Mark Scheifele and Mathew Barzal on Monday was funnier than a month of locker-room interviews.

Patrick Kane of the Blackhawks (top right), Mark Scheifele of the Jets (bottom right) and Mathew Barzal of the Islanders (bottom left) share a laugh on a Zoom call Monday.
Screenshot by Ben Pope/Chicago Sun-Times

Blackhawks star Patrick Kane’s first public comments since the NHL halted its season more than a month ago were hardly gloomy.

Kane, the Islanders’ Mathew Barzal and the Jets’ Mark Scheifele spent 45 minutes on a video conference call Monday laughing and poking fun at each other through entertaining pick-’em and trivia games.

Whom would Kane want with him in a three-on-three game, excluding Hawks teammates? The Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews and the Kings’ Drew Doughty.

Whom would he not want to face on a breakaway? The Canadiens’ Carey Price or the Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Whom would he want with him on a two-on-one? The Rangers’ Artemi Panarin.

‘‘That was probably the funnest hockey I’ve ever played,’’ Kane added to his Panarin answer, providing a quote that instantly went viral on Twitter.

Sure, Kane might be stuck inside his Chicago condominium. And, sure, he has been watching NBC Sports Chicago’s replays of the Hawks’ 2010 Stanley Cup run and playing Xbox video games for the first time in years. But those time-fillers don’t compare to the excitement of live hockey. (The Pilates studio in his building — his temporary training center — isn’t exactly the same as Fifth Third Arena, either.)

Just like the rest of society, however, he’s finding a way to make the most of the downtime. As a result, the conference call was as entertaining as a period of preseason hockey.

It turns out the same can be said for much of the rest of the NHL. In fact, the league-run calls that have sprung up by the dozens in recent weeks — Hawks captain Jonathan Toews’ appearance March 31 turned out to be only the tip of the iceberg — have provided more insight into players’ daily lives, hobbies and personalities than a normal season does.

The calls rarely have been newsworthy — Doughty did drop a relative bombshell on another call Monday, when he said he doesn’t see how the season is going to return — but they have been lively, playful and thoroughly engrossing, representing a huge difference from typical locker-room interviews.

The best part of Toews’ call came when he and the Blues’ Alex Pietrangelo meandered into discussing old-school montages of NHL hits on YouTube. Kane’s call had even more laugh-out-loud moments, such as when Barzal forgot which college Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello led to the 1983 Frozen Four.

‘‘Those contract negotiations just got a little bit tougher,’’ Kane quipped.

Once the coronavirus pandemic ends and hockey returns, the calls inevitably will fade from the NHL’s media procedures. But the league, which long has fostered an atmosphere that discourages players from speaking out about personal thoughts and passions, would be wise to learn from the calls’ popularity.

The NBA’s culture of individualism has translated perfectly to the 21st-century sports world, especially its social-media component. The NHL’s culture of always-team-first homogeneity hasn’t, for better or worse.

But it’s clear the stars of the NHL can juggle showing their human side and representing their team. Kane didn’t compromise any of his talent, mystique or respect by joking around on the call, but he did make himself seem like more of a real person.

If one silver lining of the shutdown proves to be a greater emphasis on candid, lighthearted discussion among the NHL’s biggest names in future seasons, the league might emerge from the pandemic in a better place than it entered it.