STATELINE, Nev. — The NHL decided to bring its game to Nevada, lugging the Flyers and Bruins almost 3,000 miles for a made-for-NBC event that now won’t be on a national broadcast.
Already forced to fly cross-country in the middle of a crunching schedule thanks to the pandemic, Sunday’s Flyers-Bruins game has been pushed back more than five hours and now will start at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. The move to a late window also kicks the game off NBC’s main network and onto sister cable channel NBCSN, which people around Philly still confuse for NBC Sports Philadelphia.
It’s a gamble that’s come up snake eyes. Or double-zero for you roulette players.
But if you think the players are fuming, think again, poker face.
At issue is the ice surface built on the 18th fairway of the Lakewood Tahoe Resort. It was so poor that Saturday’s noon local Colorado-Vegas game was halted after the first period and moved to 9 p.m. (local) Saturday night.
There was too much sun and not enough cold in the forecast, so Sunday’s Flyers game was pushed back, as well. This, after an already harrowing 48 hours.
“In this league, you’ve got to learn to adapt — to adapt to everything that’s thrown at you and not make excuses and get the job done,” coach Alain Vigneault said after a Saturday practice snafu, but before Sunday’s game was moved.
“I think we’re all disappointed … but we move on,” commissioner Gary Bettman told NBC on Saturday. “You can’t have success if you don’t risk failure.”
Two of Vigneault’s goals on this trip were to — obviously — come out with a victory while keeping the body clocks of his beleaguered bunch in some sort of rhythm after going 10 days between games because of a COVID-19 outbreak. Six players — Claude Giroux, Travis Konecny, Scott Laughton, Oskar Lindblom and Jake Voracek, and defenseman Justin Braun — remain sidelined.
Not sure whether they’ll beat the Bruins, but instead of flying out Sunday afternoon, they will stay an extra night in Lake Tahoe and come home Monday. The Flyers will resume a schedule on Wednesday that has 40 games in 76 days with still another to be made up.
A rough situation got even more difficult Friday night when the NHL moved the Saturday morning practices for the Flyers and Bruins, scheduled for the golf course, to an indoor rink four miles down the road.
“We know the league is looking out for the players and sometimes the weather can be unpredictable,” said van Riemsdyk, who also serves as the team’s union representative.
The switch means that neither team will have skated on the newly constructed rink until Sunday’s pregame warmups. James van Riemsdyk, the Flyers’ best player in the first quarter of the season, said the players are still excited to play in the unique event.
“I say every year that I thought I saw everything,” Flyers backup goaltender Brian Elliott said. “But there’s always new things: bubbles, no fans, etc. It’s just the way of the world right now. You have to put things into perspective. The NHL and the [players’ association] are trying to organize an event like this. … We just have to take a good mindset out there. Really, what it comes down to is that they’re a big rival for our team and we’ve got to come away with two points here.”
Players have been here before
Many of the Flyers and Bruins have played in outdoor games at this level. They’ve said the practice the day before is always one of the highlights. Boston coach Bruce Cassidy, in fact, lamented about the time his club played Chicago at Notre Dame’s football stadium in 2019.
A rain storm had forced everybody inside.
“We had to have had a hundred family members [of the team] there at the time,” he said glumly.
When the Flyers played Boston at Fenway Park in 2010, a snowball fight broke out between players, kids and anybody else who got in the way.
I say every year that I thought I saw everything. But there’s always new things: bubbles, no fans, etc. It’s just the way of the world right now.
But there also is a practical problem with players not getting to investigate the rink until just before game time.
“The lighting is a big deal,” explained Elliott, who will serve as Carter Hart’s backup on Sunday. “You can’t really control the clouds and the sun and the glare off the ice and how the ice is going to be. It’s just going to be learn as you go. When we played at the Linc a couple of years ago, it was raining and felt like a curling rink out there.”
That 2019 game at Lincoln Financial Field also was a borderline quagmire that had NHL officials sweating. It’s also the only one won by the Flyers in four chances, thanks to an overtime goal by Claude Giroux.
“We’ve done 30 games and have never had a problem quite like this,” Bettman said. “We’ve played in rain. We’ve played in snow. But sunshine has always been our enemy.”
The sun will still be out when the Flyers and Bruins start on Sunday. It won’t be as problematic, but there still could be some issues.
“You could see shadows out there and it could be a little dangerous for the guys,” Elliott said. “You don’t know if it’s a guy coming to hit you or if it’s a shadow that you’re skating into. It’s just something you’ve got to get used to.”
The cynics among us see this all as very dangerous. The players, at least the ones The Inquirer was able to reach, are still giddy about playing next to a beautiful lake with snow-covered mountains and a crisp breeze blowing through the rink. There are no stands, so the only sounds they will hear is the chatter of the players, the barking of the coaches, and the referees trying desperately to keep order.
“It’s just a cool thing to do. We all did it as kids,” Elliott explained. “You dealt with those things back then. You’re not thinking about problems. You’re thinking about having fun.”