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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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With the National Hockey League season paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teams are looking to find different ways to keep fans engaged. The New Jersey Devils, for example, simulated their remaining regular season games on EA Sports NHL 20. In one of the virtual games, Cory Schneider stopped 98 of 102 shots in a win over the Calgary Flames.

What's the most tired he's ever felt after a real NHL game?

"It might be the game when we got knocked out against Tampa Bay," he said referencing Game 5 of the first round series in 2018. "They had like five power plays in the second period (smile) and we were basically hemmed in our zone for 14 minutes so I remember coming out of that period and I was just gassed and had to get going for the third. After that game I was pretty wiped. I don't know, maybe it was because I'm older, but it was definitely a challenge."

As for the simulated game, it provided a fun talking point and Schneider even did a "post-game" interview for the team's website and social media channels.

But as the days, weeks and now months drag on, the hockey community is yearning for real puck. Schneider and his wife, meanwhile, are doing their best to keep their kids, two and four years old, entertained.

"I think day 60 is about the breaking point for them," Schneider noted with a grin. "They're really trying to test us so we're trying to keep our patience and our heads on straight."

The urgency to get back to some sense of normalcy is rising. The NHL's return-to-play committee is pushing forward, but many questions still remain.

Schneider, who cleared waivers in November and spent a chunk of the season in the American Hockey League, takes some comfort in the fact that in his final four NHL starts before the pause he posted a 3-0-1 record and .951 save percentage.

"I was feeling real good," he said. "It was only four games, but it was exciting for me to come back and play well. I wish it happened sooner in the season and I was able to get on a roll and make the season a better one overall for myself, but it’s nice to come in and prove you can still play. I didn't feel that far off at the beginning, but obviously it wasn't what we all expected. Towards the end I felt more like myself and hopefully that’s what I can carry on whenever we start up again."

Schneider spoke to TSN this week via Zoom offering his perspective on the challenge facing non-playoff teams who may not return this season. The Massachusetts native also shared insight on what makes first overall pick Jack Hughes special and what clicked this season for 23-year-old goalie Mackenzie Blackwood.

The following is an edited transcript of the interview. 

The last couple of seasons have not been easy for you. What drives you? What keeps you going?

"It's a lot of different things. As a competitor, you want to be out there and want to play at the highest level and be the best you can be. And there are a lot of people that go into that: my family, my wife, my kids. They have bore the brunt of the last couple years where I've either been gone and got sent down or been traveling. It's been a couple weird years for us and they've been there supporting me. It'd be nice to come back and be home and be here and have them watch me play and show them that I can still do this so that’s a big motivation for me. But also just proving that, even at this age, I can still play well and be effective, maybe not in the role or in capacity that I did earlier in my career, but in some kind of way. I can provide value on and off the ice for the Devils and that's just an internal drive to prove that and show that."

There's a chance that the regular season doesn't resume, which means the Devils are likely done for a long time. What sort of challenges are associated with such a long layoff?

"If we don't go back this year and next year doesn't start until December or January or something like that, you're looking at nine, 10 months without having played a game and for a guy playing my position and at my age, 34, that's a long time. The game gets a little bit harder as you get older not easier. It's some of the younger guys who can probably jump back in and get a feel for it a little bit quicker. It’s good for them, but for somebody my age it's better to keep your body moving in those positions and getting the flexibility, the reaction and all that stuff. You try to replicate it off the ice with stretching, yoga, all that kind of stuff, but nothing can really replicate the movements and the feelings you have on the ice."

With the Devils out of the playoff mix, you're an impartial observer. What playoff format makes sense to you?

"Whatever is decided, if it gets decided, it probably isn't going to be fair. Everyone just has to accept you're not going to make all 31 teams happy or all 20 teams happy. You can say, 'Well, the play-in [games are] unfair for those teams,' but then the top four teams might say, ‘Well, that’s unfair because we don't get to play any games before the playoffs start.' If everyone feels it's a little unfair that's probably the best solution. I don’t know what the best solution is. It’s a challenge no matter what so we all just have to accept the fact that these are unforeseen circumstances. We’re going to have get creative and maybe do new things or different things that people aren't used to and, yeah, somebody’s going to find a way to be upset or complain about however it gets decided [but] If we have the playoffs then the Cup champions are the Cup champions and that's just how it’s going to work."

Jack Hughes celebrated his 19th birthday yesterday. You played with him at the 2019 World Championship and now with the Devils, what makes him special?

"We actually just talked to him [Thursday] for his birthday. He’s 19 and (smile) still can't believe that. We had him here at the house for a few months at the start of the season just to get him acclimated and used to the lifestyle and we spent some good time together. He's definitely mature in certain ways like the way he carries himself and the way he acts in the locker room. He gets it and between his family – brothers, father and mother – they've obviously done a great job teaching him what this takes and how to be, because it's a unique situation. He's mature beyond his years in that sense. And then there's other areas where he's still a teenager. When you think about what you were doing at 18, I was probably scrambling for a fake ID or beer money in college or something like that, you know, and thinking about that. So, what I was worried about and what he's worried about, it’s night and day.

"He's got all the talent in the world. He's incredibly skilled, smart and works hard. He wants to be the best. He's hard on himself. Driving home with him after games, I was sort of saying, 'Hey man, I know you're used to putting up two or three points a night [and] those games are going to happen, but not every night so don’t be too hard on yourself. Demand a lot, but understand it's going to be a little bit of a grind and you're going to learn, you’re going to get better.' So I think he understands that and knows what he has to do. [He] is thinking, 'OK, how do I get better? How do I get more dominant and become one of the best players in the league?' That’s what he wants."

I understand you've formed a friendship with Mackenzie Blackwood. What potential do you see in him?

"He’s got all the tools. It’s just incredible. You see him as a person and you're just like, 'This guy is big, he’s strong, he’s fast, one of the most explosive guys I've ever seen.' He’s like 6-foot-3, 230 [pounds] so he should probably be a move tight end in the NFL and not a goalie. I was joking when we took him [in the draft] that if we're making goalies like this nowadays then what kind of chance do we have as normal guys? He’s just an athletic freak. Early on I think that’s what he relied on. He had such good tools that he could get away with that, but I think the last year or so he’s really developed the mental side of his game, you know, not getting too high or too low about certain things.

"He's got this playfulness about him and you can say, 'Oh, he's goofy or whatever,' but I think that's just him and who he is and how he deals with pressure and stress and sometimes it's a good thing, because it seems like things don’t affect him. That’s been important for him. I thought he did a great job this year. Obviously, it wasn’t an ideal situation and he was probably playing a little bit more than he thought he would. He struggled early just like we all did and then to see him hit his stride and take over, he played incredibly well. Sometimes it’s trial by fire for young goalies and some guys succeed and some guys don't and he seems to be on his way to being a good goalie for a long time. I think the sky's the limit for him."

A few weeks back I interviewed Toronto Marlies goalie Joseph Woll, who's also a Boston College product, who struggled in his first year in professional hockey in the AHL. If you could go back and give advice to yourself when you were first starting out as a pro, what would it be?

"No. 1, it goes fast. It goes really quickly. It feels like yesterday I was being drafted or in college or the minors or Vancouver so it all goes quickly. When you're young, you know, you can lose sight of that. Guys are better now at just being prepared to be a professional. It's your job, your livelihood. You can be satisfied playing in the minors or being a back-up goalie, but how badly do you want to become a starting goalie? ... So, for some guys it’s kind of like, 'This is fun, it's cool to be a pro hockey player and get paid doing it,' but how many guys have it in them to steal somebody's job or to work their way up or to take advantage of your opportunities when you get them?

"I think when I was young I had the same issues [as Woll]. I came into Manitoba and really struggled the first half of that year, because I just didn't really know what to do. I just did what I'd always done in college and I learned pretty quickly that that’s not necessarily enough because there's expectations, there's pressure, jobs are on the line for coaches, teammates rely on you and all that sort of stuff. I think you have to grasp quickly how much work and time you have to put into it to be solid pro and be consistent every single night. Guys are better about it now than they used to be because they play [in the NHL] younger now. But, as a goalie it can take longer and you can have a few more bumps in the road in terms of ups and downs and how your career progresses. So, you have to be resilient and keep climbing the ladder."