Trevor Zegras had no idea things were done any other way.
The slick, camera-friendly centre with a toolbox full of on-ice tricks made his NHL debut for the Anaheim Ducks in February 2021 as the NHL navigated life alongside COVID-19.
That shortened season saw all interviews and media availabilities conducted via video conference calls – part of a long list of protocols aimed at keeping the virus at bay and players healthy.
The NHL largely moved to press conferences for the 2021-22 campaign, but locker rooms that had been open to reporters before the March 2020 pandemic shutdown remained closed.
Now with the league set to embark on what’s hoped will be a normal season without interruption, reporters and television camera operators, recorders and notepads are expected to be back waiting by players’ stalls at the conclusion of practices and games.
The way it used to be – and the format moving forward – was news to Zegras.
“I didn’t even know that was a thing, if I’m being completely honest,” the outgoing 21-year-old said with a smile. “I just figured you go into that other (press conference room).
“That’ll be a nice wrinkle.”
A number of of the game’s stars shared their thoughts on locker rooms reopening to reporters at last week’s NHL/NHLPA player media tour just outside Las Vegas.
Some were excited at the shift back to the old rules.
“It’s great,” Winnipeg Jets centre Mark Scheifele said. “I’m a big face-to-face guy.”
“You look back in the past in the NHL,” New York Islanders counterpart Mathew Barzal added. “Guys doing interviews riding the exercise bike, having the crowd in the locker room at their stall.
“Just seems very personal and a little more of an in-depth look.”
Others, meanwhile, were less enthused.
“I didn’t mind those press conference rooms,” said Florida Panthers winger Matthew Tkachuk.
“I won’t be able to goof around as much in the room,” joked Dallas Stars goaltender Jake Oettinger, who like Zegras has never experienced reporters at his stall.
“You guys might get hit by some tape balls.”
League rules stipulate locker rooms must be opened to the media members five minutes after the first player exits the ice at the conclusion of practice. There’s a similar immediacy after games.
“Nothing in our (COVID-19) protocol (prohibits) media from the locker room,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said of the upcoming season. “We anticipate going back to what our rules were prior to the pandemic.”
The NFL and Major League Baseball welcomed reporters back into locker rooms this year. The NBA’s media policy for 2022-23 has yet to be released, but a league spokesman told The Canadian Press in an email, “It’s safe to say locker rooms will again be a part of media access.”
Maple Leafs sniper Auston Matthews, the first player to reach 60 goals in a decade last season, deadpanned about what’s often a crowded Toronto locker room.
“Love it when I’m untying my skates,” he said, “and the camera guys are fighting for positioning.
“It’s the best.”
Chicago Blackhawks winger Max Domi, who spent two seasons with the Montreal Canadiens in an equally intense media market, is eager to have reporters back.
“It’s so much better,” he said. “I’m sure, no offence, a lot of (players) probably would not agree with that. If you’re going to have an interview you might as well be able to go face-to-face with someone. You have a different connection.
“You become very friendly because you’re in the room after practices and games every day.”
He added the conversations off to the side and away from the lights are where journalists probably get their juiciest material.
“That’s the best time to talk to a hockey player,” he said. “When there’s no cameras.”
But like Matthews, Domi has had some issues.
“Those (camera) guys are savage because they don’t care,” he said with a smile. “They just sit (in front of your locker).
“I’m like, ‘Are you gonna move, bro?'”
Ottawa Senators captain Brady Tkachuk said there will be an adjustment period after more than 30 months of player-reporter separation.
“Right after you get off the ice there’s going to be people around your stall,” he said. “It’ll be different, but it’ll be nice to get those relationships back.
“At times you miss your relationships, but when things aren’t going well, you’re glad it’s not in your face.”
Calgary Flames winger Jonathan Huberdeau, who was acquired from the Panthers in the Matthew Tkachuk trade this summer, arrives in a Canadian market just in time to have locker-room doors swing open after a decade in Florida.
“I never had that in my life,” he said. “It’s going to be another experience.”
Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said having reporters up close is an opportunity to express views on the sport’s most important topics in a back-and-forth setting.
It’s also one of the final pieces to the NHL’s post-pandemic puzzle.
“It’s cool in Toronto … if you’re a knowledgeable guy about the game, you get a chance to give your opinion on things,” he said. “It’s a good sign that things are returning. I hate the cliche of ‘back to normal’ and all this other stuff.
“But it’s the truth.”