Thomas Chabot of the Ottawa Senators thinks we just might have to roll with the concept of games being played in empty arenas.
Neutral-site hockey? A virtual NHL draft?
In this strangest time of our lives, a lot of different concepts are being considered by the NHL. Sports in general won’t get back to normal for some time during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Chabot, the smooth-skating defensive leader of the Senators, would welcome a return of any kind.
“I think it would be fine if you could get back and play the game,” Chabot said on a video conference call Thursday. “It would be a situation you’re not used to, having no fans in the stands. But at that point it’s something guys would be willing to do.
“Just getting back on the ice and with the guys in the locker room — everything has been kind of different, and weird with this situation but I think if it came to that I’d be happy to do it.”
Chabot, 23, has been home with his family in Sainte-Marie-de-Beauce, Que. since the mid-March direction by the league for players to return to their hometowns and self-isolate. Ottawa’s last game — and the last played in the NHL this season — was March 11 in Los Angeles against the Kings, game No. 71 for the Senators.
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The Chabots — Thomas’ parents and his brother, Felix-Antoine, and his dog, Milo, are passing time the way many families are these days. Lots of TV, games, and Chabot stays in shape with regular runs and workouts in a home gym, in the event the Senators get to play any more games prior to 2020-21.
“Whether we are or not [finishing the regular season], I’m trying to stay ready,” he says.
Card games, board games (or is it bored games?) They’re all on the table in Sainte-Marie.
Chabot and his girlfriend have also been dabbling in large puzzles.
“I probably haven’t done them for ten, 12 years,” he says.
Chabot’s TV series viewing has included Tiger King (“I didn’t go crazy over it”) and Money Heist, which he admits he has gone at “hard.”
“I started it during the season and I’m on season four right now.”
Sidelined hockey players will watch old games occasionally, and one that caught his eye was a recent rebroadcast of a playoff game between the Quebec Nordiques and Montreal Canadiens.
Chabot got a kick out of the smaller goalie gear and how the defenceman “could hook the forwards and stop them from going wide, or going to the net.” What D-man wouldn’t love to slow down Connor McDavid that way. (OK, some still do, but might actually get called for it).
What made the Nords-Habs noteworthy, beyond the clutching and grabbing, was watching alongside his father, Francois.
“With the Nordiques on, my dad was a huge fan and it was fun to watch a bit of the game with him,” he said.
Like head coach D.J. Smith and general manager Pierre Dorion before him on these Zoom calls, Chabot expressed his relief that the five teammates and one staff member (plus broadcast colour commentator Gord Wilson) have all recovered from the COVID-19 virus and are doing well.
“Once the virus started, we followed the rules we were told to do and we’ve been trying to stay safe and healthy,” Chabot said. “Obviously you’ve got to watch every little thing you do. it’s been fine so far.”
On the hockey side of the conversation, Chabot earned kudos from Smith and Dorion for his improved defensive play this season.
Though his offensive numbers were down slightly from last season’s 55 points in 70 games, Chabot still led Ottawa with 33 assists and had 39 points in 71 games. Chabot led the NHL in minutes played, at 26 minutes per game, and had improved possession numbers despite routinely facing the top offensive players of the opposition.
“It’s something I’ve been saying for years, I want to be a good, solid two-way defenceman,” Chabot says. “Playing against the best players on the other team it’s far from perfect but if we can take a step every year that’s a good sign.”
Chabot, noting he did a lot of detailed video work with Smith and defensive coach Jack Capuano, says he longs for the opportunity to face top opponents when the Senators grow into a playoff team.
To that end, he feels his young group took a step this season, following the direction of the coaching staff.
“They’re trying to make us change our identity — skating and playing hard every night and never giving up,” Chabot said. “And I think we showed that plenty of times during the season and that’s something we’ve got to keep building on for the years to come.”
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Season highlight: the AHL surge
Interestingly, when he was asked to name his team’s highlight this season, Chabot pointed to the inspiration of watching a string of young players coming up from AHL Belleville to showcase their skills. Drake Batherson, Erik Brannstrom, Josh Norris and more made an impact.
“It was huge for us as a team every time a younger guy came through and had a really good impact on the team, showed he could play and wanted to stay,” Chabot said. “That team in Belleville was having a good year and it was fun to see a lot of younger guys coming in and really showing everyone they want to be part of our success later on.”
Chabot feels the Senators can build on that progress next season and “take another step.”
‘Duke’ for most improved
Asked to name the Senators player who showed the most improvement this season, Chabot didn’t hesitate to name forward Anthony Duclair. Though he tailed off after a torrid start, Duclair still scored 23 goals, second only to Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who was traded at the deadline.
“You knew coming into this year he was going to have a bigger role and I think he took a big step,” Chabot said of Duclair. “He was named an all-star and that was well deserved.
“He scored a lot of goals and played really well for us as a team [guy]. He has speed, skill and his hockey sense is very good.”
Tkachuk, quarantine pal
If he had to be quarantined with one other roommate, Chabot says he would pick a familiar face — forward Brady Tkachuk.
“I’d probably go with Brady, since we’re roommates on the road. We kind of know our sleeping schedules and know when to have our own free time,” Chabot says.
Who wouldn’t he want to be isolated with?
“It’s a tough question but I will go with Colin White because he loves talking and putting music on. I love talking with him, but for the sake of the question I will say him. He’s going to laugh at it.”
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Lafreniere stepped up under pressure
The Senators hope to get a chance to draft Alexis Lafreniere of Rimouski first overall in the upcoming draft, a Quebec-born player, like Chabot, who has handled the hype.
“He did a really good job,” Chabot said. “I don’t personally know him but when you look at the season he had, he went to the world juniors and really showed up and played for his country. He was one of the best players out there if not the best.
“In the ‘Q,’ the season didn’t finish the way it was expected to, but again he had a really good year. He proved he’s a really dominant player and is ready for the next step.”
Virtual draft could be a reality
Chabot would feel badly if the draft in Montreal had to be cancelled due to the novel coronavirus, but accepts it as just another sacrifice made for the greater good. Selected 18th overall in 2015, Chabot still relishes the day.
“One of the greatest moments of my life was getting drafted,” he says. “I had a lot of my family and friends there. It was a moment I’m always going to remember. Again, it’s a different situation and part of what we are going through right now.”
Senators bring cheer (and food) to Ottawa area hospitals
Senators owner Eugene Melnyk provided lunch to several area hospitals — and the Roger Neilson House — as a way to thank front-line workers during the COVID-19 outbreak. The meals were bought from Thyme & Again, a popular catering and lunch spot in Ottawa.
Several Senators players appeared on a video, on the Senators website, thanking workers for their time and efforts in the face of a worldwide pandemic. Frontline workers also received a voucher for two tickets to a Senators game next season.
Tkachuk, Chabot, Mark Borowiecki, Duclair and retired winger Chris Neil were among the players who shared a message of gratitude.
“On behalf of my teammates we want to send sincere thanks to all the front line health care workers who are helping to keep our community safe,” Chabot said.