Although hockey fans won’t be allowed in the arena, there’s plenty of excitement in Central Alberta and across Canada has the NHL playoffs get underway Saturday. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

Hockey fans rejoice as the NHL returns

The last thing any hockey fan expected in 2020 was the puck dropping on the Stanley Cup playoffs during a heatwave in August.

Hockey fans could see as many as 157 games between Saturday and the day the Stanley Cup is awarded in October.

In the strangest of years, the virus brought our lives as we know them to a screeching halt, leaving sports fans scrambling to find some sense of normalcy over the past 141 days without NHL hockey or other sports.

“I’m excited; everyone is excited. I think what’s really cool about hockey being back specifically, is it adds a little bit of normalcy to what hasn’t been normal in any way,” said Red Deer Rebels in-game host Joe Whitbread, who has also hosted Calgary Flames playoff parties as well as Battle of Alberta game nights.

“There’s lots that is more important in our world right now with health and safety protocols, and making sure our economy is working and that we all have jobs… but let’s be honest, sports is something that really brings us all together.

“And hockey specifically in our culture as Canadians, and even in Alberta, as we have two very good playoffs teams.”

Saturday, there will be a full slate of games, five in total between the hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto.

The Edmonton Oilers kick off their best-of-five qualifying series against the Chicago Blackhawks at 1 p.m., and a primetime, all-Canadian series starts with the Flames battling the Winnipeg Jets at 8:30 p.m.

While there’s plenty of excitement to go around, local Oilers fan Cory Bouchard, 41, who has been a supporter since his teenage years, wasn’t sure how he felt about hockey coming back.

That all changed Tuesday, when he heard the exhibition game between the Flames and the Oilers on the radio.

“I didn’t think I was too excited about the playoffs, but my social media follows, along with listening to the exhibition game on my way home from Saskatchewan the other night, got my heart pumping and (put) a smile on my face more than I’d expected, or that I’d like to admit,” said the lifelong Oilers fan, adding his two sons are also Oilers’ supporters and he hopes to watch some of the playoff games with them.

If there’s any doubt about how desperate hockey fans were to see anything on the ice, Tuesday night’s return with an exhibition doubleheader drew record TV numbers.

It featured the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Montreal Canadiens, as well as the Battle of Alberta. Nearly 4.3 million Canadians tuned in, the highest for exhibition games in Sportsnet’s history.

For context, the most-watched NHL game in Canadian history was Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals, between the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks. For that game, 8.6 million Canadians watched.

“I was excited to just watch an exhibition game and I know the numbers were through the roof. I can only imagine that’s going to increase as the playoffs move forward,” Whitbread said.

Of course, TV will be the only way hockey fans can take in this unique season. Fans won’t be allowed in arenas or celebration squares with gathering limits in the province.

Still, bars and pubs are offering fans some of that once-upon-a-time experience. Hockey fans are even setting up TVs in their backyard, because in the strangest of seasons, why not?

“I think of sports as a place where you either gather in your man cave or place at home. I know people who are setting TVs up on their deck. Why wouldn’t you on some of the hottest days of the year?” Whitbread said.

“Watch from outside, enjoy some beverages and do it differently, because these playoffs are very different. It’s kind of neat in a very odd way that we can even enjoy them differently.”

No matter who you cheer for, hockey is back. Those sweet words are music to any fan’s ears.

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Although hockey fans won’t be allowed in the arena, there’s plenty of excitement in Central Alberta and across Canada has the NHL playoffs get underway Saturday.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Codie McLachlan

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