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Three former University of Maine hockey stars will have an opportunity to have their names inscribed on the Stanley Cup as the National Hockey League is preparing to return to action four months after shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The NHL and the NHL Players Association worked out an agreement on a return-to-play protocol and a four-year extension of the collective bargaining agreement. These now must be approved by the NHL’s Board of Governors, the NHLPA and the full membership.
Although there will be a risk, the players say the NHL has done everything it can to provide them with the safest environment possible.
Former Black Bear Ben Bishop, a three-time finalist for the Vezina Trophy awarded to the league’s best goalie, is prepared to go back to work. His wife, Andrea, gave birth to their second son, James, three weeks ago. Benjamin IV is 2.
“It isn’t the most convenient of circumstances but it’s my job,” said the 33-year-old Bishop, who is in his 12th NHL season. “It’s the best situation for what [we’re dealing with]. We’re trying to make the best of it. There’s no perfect scenario.”
Bishop and the Dallas Stars are one of the top four teams in the Western Conference and will play Colorado, Vegas and defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis in a round robin to determine the seeds.
If the return-to-play agreement is approved, there will be a 24-team playoff format. The first several rounds of the playoffs will be played exclusively in Toronto [Eastern Conference] and Edmonton [Western Conference].
Fans won’t be allowed in the arenas.
Other NHLers with UMaine ties who are gearing up to resume the season are forwards Gustav Nyquist and Devin Shore, who play for former Black Bear John Tortorella, the head coach of Columbus. The Blue Jackets are seeded ninth in the East and play No. 8 Toronto in the qualifying round.
Former Black Bears Ben Hutton of the Los Angeles Kings and Jimmy Howard of the Detroit Red Wings are off because their teams didn’t qualify for the playoffs.
Formal training camps are scheduled to open on July 13, then teams will travel to Toronto and Edmonton on July 26. The qualifying starts on Aug. 1.
The top four teams in each conference receive a first-round bye, but will play a round robin against each other to determine the seeds. The other eight teams in each conference will play a best-of-5 qualifying-round series to advance to the conference quarterfinals.
All series after the qualifying round will use a best-of-7 format.
NHL players have been skating and training with small groups of teammates since June 8 under Phase Two of the NHL’s return-to-play protocol.
“A group of five or six of us have been training and skating every day. We have three-hour time slots,” Bishop said. “Then they clean the facility [before the next group]. And they have been testing us [for the coronavirus] twice a week.”
Shore said players have their own personal towel and shampoo.
“The league has done a very thorough job making sure we are coming back to the safest conditions possible,” he said.
Shore and Bishop are looking forward to the drop of the puck.
“It’s exciting. A lot of hard work went into [re-starting the season],” Bishop said Bishop. “This is the playoffs and we’re going to go out and try to win the Stanley Cup.”
Shore, who is in his fifth pro season, was traded by Dallas to Anaheim a year ago and went to Columbus from Anaheim for winger Sonny Milano at the trade deadline this season.
“What we enjoy doing the most is playing hockey, regardless of the circumstances,” Shore said. “There are a lot of uncertainties and unknowns but we’re going to embrace it.”
Bishop and Shore said playing without fans will be an interesting dynamic.
“It will be a bummer because we’ll miss the playoff atmosphere inside the rink and outside as well,” said Bishop, who supports the NHL decision to play at only two sites.
“Maybe it will be a good reminder of why we all play the game. We’ll be going back to our roots. It should be fun,” Shore said.
Shore has posted five goals and seven assists in 45 games this season between Columbus and Anaheim, which didn’t make the playoffs.
“The guys in Columbus have been great. They welcomed me right away,” Shore said. “There has been an adjustment period. That’s the nature of pro hockey.”
He said he has enjoyed reminiscing with Nyquist about their playing days at UMaine.
“[Nyquist] was a legend there. I bounce a lot of ideas off him,” said the 25-year-old Shore.
Nyquist, 30, is Columbus’ second-leading scorer with 42 points on 15 goals and 27 assists in 70 games. He is in his ninth pro season.
Nyquist scored at least 21 goals in three different seasons with the Red Wings before being traded last year to San Jose and then to Columbus.
Shore said Tortorella’s intensity and passion for the game are contagious and bring out the best in the players.
Shore was scheduled on Aug. 1 to marry former UMaine women’s soccer captain and 2013 America East Defender of the Year Maggie Malone, but they have pushed back their wedding until next year due to the pandemic.
Bishop has played in 44 games for the Stars this season. He owns a 21-16-4 record and has a 2.50 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage.
He was a Vezina finalist last year, when he boasted a 1.98 GAA and a .934 save percentage.