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Kristen Shilton

TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter

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The struggle to find a “new normal” has been felt by people around the world amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, but Maple Leafs winger Zach Hyman was hunting for familiar territory long before the National Hockey League hit pause on March 12.

It started right around the time Hyman tore his ACL in April 2019, and the search continues even now, as his long road to recovery continues. 

“I’m just trying to get the knee feeling back to normal,” Hyman admitted on a Thursday conference call with reporters. “When I was in the season, I called it 'the new normal' of just trying to manage the day-to-day soreness of it, and it got better as the season went on, but I definitely have work to do with it. I've put a lot of work into getting back to feeling a little bit normal.”

Hyman’s had plenty of time on his hands to address that knee over the past five weeks without an NHL season to play. During his media session, Hyman touched on how he’s filling his calendar now (hint: lots of gaming), how he views the season, and whether self-isolation will lead to a fourth tome from the children’s book author. 

1. Bright side of life

In a period littered with uncertainty, Hyman has done his best to stay focused on the positives – namely, how this unexpected downtime has allowed more opportunity to heal physically than he would have had otherwise.

It was back in mid-April of 2019 that Hyman learned he’d torn his ACL during the Leafs’ first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Boston Bruins.

The surgery and subsequent rehab cost him the first 19 games of Toronto’s current season, but when he returned, Hyman still put up some of the best numbers of his career, sitting with 37 points (21 goals, 16 assists) in 51 games. 

“I'm definitely happy with my ability to come back from a serious injury,” Hyman said. “It's good to have a good year and a good bounce back [after injury], just mentally. So, from that standpoint, you're happy with how everything has turned out. Having the ability to work on my own body, I think that can motivate you and keep you optimistic, even though you don't know when we'll be back. You try not to look at the big picture, you try to just look at the day-to-day and try to take a crappy situation and make it an optimistic one. 

For Hyman, that means going back to the rink stronger than when he last left it.

“You make it [a situation] where you can be better and come out of it better,” he said. “I was having a great season, but I think that I can still be a lot better and focus on rehabbing my knee and taking advantage of the time to heal up with the hopes of having a season to come back to as soon as possible. There are no timelines right now, which can be discouraging because you're kind of in a holding pattern where you really don't know what you're doing, and obviously nobody is skating right now. You’ve really got to be self-motivated in a time like this because the only person that can keep yourself accountable is yourself, really.”

2. Wait and see

It seems like every week there’s a new scenario put forth about how professional sports could resume in North America, and what a return to play might look like.

On Wednesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States, said play could only begin again by this summer if athletes were to be quarantined in hotels away from family members and submitted to regular testing. And, of course, there would be no fans present. 

Hyman has heard about the various frameworks being suggested, but doesn’t see the point yet in attaching himself to any one outcome. 

“Everybody wants to get back to normal and get back to playing and there are a lot of things that go into a decision like that,” he said. “I think everybody has to be open to all different scenarios and weigh the benefits, the pros and cons, to each scenario. We have people in place to help make those decisions and I'm sure whatever decision is made will be a very well informed one. As players, we will go along with whatever the experts decide. We don't really know what the future holds right now, but I think it's even more important to stay in the moment and just be prepared for anything.”

3. Game on

Hyman was an early investor in the eSports world, launching his company, Eleven Gaming Corporation, back in the fall of 2018.

With everyone stuck indoors, business has really started booming. Fans are logging on to watch Hyman take on teammates like Mitch Marner and Frederik Gauthier in spirited games of Fortnite.

It’s an entirely different kind of arena that Hyman has come to love, especially since it allows him to interact with other gamers who are just as competitive. 

“All of our gaming viewership numbers have gone up during this because I guess everybody is staying at home,” he said. “Sometimes I'm playing video games with Mitch and Freddie the Goat, and fans are watching and commenting on our dialogue and seeing how we talk to each other and seeing how we talk away from the rink, so that's kind of cool. And then other times I'm hosting custom games on Fortnite, where I can host a lobby and send the code to everybody and everybody  joins in and can play against me and you see the comments like 'I got you, I eliminated you,' and seeing fans all happy that they eliminated me is pretty cool.”

When Hyman got into the eSports business, he did so for the same reason that guides most of his life decisions – excitement over the product. 

“I tend to follow things that I really enjoy doing,” he explained. “I tend to follow my passions. I invested into gaming and eSports because I love to game and I'm a gamer. I thought that media was shifting into an online consumer base where people were consuming media online. I have a younger brother, Shane, who's 11 years younger than me. He doesn't watch TV anymore, other than live sports. He watches YouTube, Netflix, Twitch, all that. So, gaming and eSports is just a sector of that online entertainment and to get into it early and build a network out [I thought] would be a cool idea.”

Hyman is grateful for the outlet gaming provides, and that he can share it with Marner. The two have recently played in tournaments for charity, and while Marner joked to TSN’s Gino Reda in an interview on Tuesday that Hyman is the teammate he’d least like to quarantine with, Hyman would welcome the company. 

“That would be great if I could just push Mitch's buttons and beat him in some video games and make him go crazy. I'd like that,” Hyman said about the possibility of isolating together. “We’re both competitive, so we'd probably drive each other crazy. If he won, I'd probably go crazy, but I think I'd get him.”

4. Staying at home

Hyman still has one more season left on his four-year, $9 million contact, but with questions swirling about when the NHL will resume and how the salary cap will be affected in the short and long term, he has started to think about what his future might look like.

“First and foremost, I would love to stay in Toronto,” said Hyman. “It’s where I grew up. I want to be a Leaf for a long time. In a way, with everything that's happening now, I'm lucky that I have another year on my contract because everything will probably be sorted out by then with regards to the cap and whatnot and all those questions that nobody really has answers for right now. I would love to be a long-term Leaf and re-sign here. I want to be here and ultimately win a Stanley Cup.”

5. Feeling inspired

In his spare time, Hyman has written and released three children’s books, the most recent of which was published in 2018. 

It wasn’t exactly in his plans to release another one immediately, but with the NHL paused, Hyman has returned to the writing process.

“I'm working on the [next] one,” he revealed. “I mean, I have no excuse now. I have all the time in the world.”

No word on what the plot might be, but it probably won’t include the​ same fodder as books Hyman has been reading for pleasure, a favourite pastime he’s been all too happy digging into again during the pause. 

“I just finished The Intelligent Investor [by Benjamin Graham],” Hyman said. "I don't really play the stock market at all, but with everything happening around the stock market and that crashing, I thought it would be good time to start reading about that stuff and learning about it to try and stay sharp. I also have a book by Warren Buffett that I'm probably going to read next.”