What it was like covering the last Leafs game before the Pandemic

It honestly doesn’t feel that long ago.

March 10, 2020. The virus had begun to ramp up in North America, and the NHL, among other leagues, took part in a new media policy that acted to prevent the media from getting too close to players. The media were no longer allowed in the changerooms after the game, forcing interviews to take place in a more formal setting. At the time, 75 total COVID-19 cases were considered a major deal, enough to force a state of emergency in New York.

Simple enough. Sure, it made getting through the rink to the media gondola a bit more tricky, but that’s a minor inconvenience – boohoo. I attended the game with fellow The Hockey News colleague Ken Campbell, who’s covered too many NHL lockouts and probably has a few dinosaurs in his phone’s contact list at this point.

I arrived about an hour before puck drop, giving myself to get used to the new guidelines, but also to snake my way through the crowd. Social distancing? There was no such thing. I made my way up past the Tampa Bay changeroom, but through a less direct route and after all players were back in the room. I made my way towards the media elevator with at least 3-4 others and two scratches for the night. Remember packed elevators?

I took some time to chat with a few other media members in the gondola hallway before getting to my seat. From there, it was business as usual. Some in the media row chatted about the virus, laughing at the thought of the NHL stopping the season due to the virus. In the back of our minds, we knew it was a possibility, but a full stoppage due to the virus would be – wait for it – unprecedented times.

Immediately after puck drop, you could tell something felt… different. The arena, which can hold up to 20,270 fans with standing room, typically takes up to 10 minutes after puck drop to reach close to capacity. It’s downtown Toronto, after all – it’s just a mess near the rink, which sits right beside Canada’s largest train station, Union Station. But for a mid-March contest against Tampa Bay – one of the league’s top teams – it felt very off. The attendance was announced at 19,124, but it felt much, much quieter than what you’d expect, even on a Tuesday night. I’d been to many games in the weeks prior and a few airports, too, but it was the first time I was starting to see people wearing masks in a crowded area. There were at least two people outside selling hand sanitizer, and you could see at least a few people taking advantage of it once they arrived at their seats.

The game itself was fine. The Leafs won 2-1 after a solid goaltending battle between Andrei Vasilevskiy and Frederik Andersen and Auston Matthews found the net for what felt like the 500th time at Scotiabank Arena this season. The media box tends to empty a few minutes before the final buzzer to allow adequate time to get on the elevator down and make it outside the changeroom. I typically would chase down the opposing team, which only would have a handful of media looming around, anyways. I took the stairs down with Ken instead of the elevator – we’re on the top floor of the building up in the media gondola, so it’s a lengthy walk down – and ended up by the Platinum Club lounge area on the event floor, not far from where the changerooms are. If you’ve ever been down there, it can get a bit hectic after a game. But since the the team’s weren’t allowing us to walk through our usual route – beyond the team changerooms towards the media centre in the middle of the player hallway – it meant we had to weave through hordes of fans (and many that were quite intoxicated) to what would end up being the makeshift media availability room.

The room was cramped – not a ton of seats, but not many media members around, either. I stood by the front entrance so I could get a quick look at who was coming around the corner, but more so because the seats in the media box were so bad that I just couldn’t pain myself to sit another second. We expected a cluster-crap – not the fault of Tampa Bay’s PR team at all, to be clear – since the whole procedure was still new to everyone. I think we sat around for maybe 15 minutes before the first player showed up. Usually, the wait’s pretty short because the players want to get back on the bus and get out of dodge, but teams were being careful and allowing one at a time. It was otherwise normal from there: ask a few questions, new player (slowly, but surely) would come in, repeat.

There was a delay in getting players to the podium, and I believe just three showed up. We couldn’t take players to the side to ask a few more personal questions like usual. The access was much tougher to get – and at the same time, I applaud the NHL and the Tampa Bay PR for the fantastic job they did making it work. It was new for everyone, and if that’s what we were forced to deal with for the next few months, so be it. I do remember being annoyed at the time because I, like many others, wondered if after the virus died off that teams would stick to making it tougher to get access. Many still believe that could be the case, but following the media policy was the least we could do in uncertain times. Usually in the Leafs room, there’s about 25 people standing around with mics bumping and rubbing into each other – the exact opposite of what we’re accustomed to in society these days.

My job was to gather quotes from the Lightning for a piece I was going to write about the next stretch of games for the Lightning and how they can use it to gain the momentum they didn’t have heading into the post-season the year before – which ended in an untimely exit. I wanted to focus on it quickly because I had a handful of podcasts to record the next day and wanted to make sure I wasn’t rushing to get the piece done. Ken asked me to grab drinks with him that night – I declined, lamentably, not realizing it was going to be the last time outside of the office that I’d see him, or any member of The Hockey News’ team.

Two days later, the NHL announced it was going on hiatus. The next day, the THN team was – temporarily – cut, but I was still working. I got to see a few friends that cover the NASCAR Pinty’s Series with me over the weekend, the last weekend where Ontario was still active by normal standards. On March 23, the Ontario government – along with most of Canada – declared a state of emergency. Life as we knew it was put on hold, a hold that’s still active to this day.

I’ve spent the past few months trying to keep busy. My position at THN was eliminated, leaving me on the sidelines professionally until recently. I started contributing 2020 draft reports to Smaht Scouting, working on an unannounced draft guide I’m self-producing and will be contributing hockey coverage for a soon-to-announced deal I’m really excited about. I’ve also probably spent too much time playing iRacing and racing against real life NASCAR drivers, but I’ve been making some good friends (and a bit of money) along the way while making the most of the opportunities offered due to the pandemic.

But to think just how different life was on March 10. Thoughts of a complete shutdown just felt crazy. There was no chance. None. There’s no way we could shut down the world, right?

Now look where we are.