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Lightning enjoy a break from the NHL for Christmas

It has been almost 50 years since the league last played on Christmas Eve or Christmas.
Three cheers for a holiday mini break. Center Cedric Paquette and the rest of the Lightning won't be in action again until Saturday.
Three cheers for a holiday mini break. Center Cedric Paquette and the rest of the Lightning won't be in action again until Saturday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 24, 2019

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the league, not a creature was stirring, not even a rink rat.

The NHL has gone silent for the three days. Coaches, players, staff and everyone else involved with teams get a break for Christmas Eve, Christmas and Boxing Day. No practices, no games, no transactions.

“Christmas is my favorite time of year,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “I’m glad that the league doesn’t play games on that day. They leave it for everybody to be with family.”

The last Christmas game was played in 1972, after that the league took two days off (Dec. 24 and 25) and eventually added a third day (usually Dec. 26, sometimes Dec. 23).

This is the only league to take the holiday off. The NBA highlights its Christmas triple header. The NFL plays when the holiday falls on a Sunday. NCAA football plays the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve and you’ll find college basketball on Christmas. In other seasons, the MLB plays right through Mother’s Day and July 4. Only NASCAR breaks for Easter and Mother’s Day.

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Phil Esposito played Christmas Day each of the first nine years of his career, including four Dec. 25-26 back-to-backs. He remembers going to a 2 p.m. Christmas matinee game after spending the morning assembling his daughter’s dollhouse.

“I’m the worst at doing that,” he said, “and drinking while I did it. But I got through the game and then we partied. We played back then because that’s when the kids could come.”

There have been proposals put in front of the league suggesting at least one Christmas game, with the kind of hype the NBA uses around its triple header. But they have never been approved by the commissioner or board of governors.

There’s money left on the table, but the individuals involved enjoy the break.

Players and coaches dispersed Tuesday morning after Monday’s game against Florida. Last year, the team didn’t have a game on Dec. 23. A handful of players left Edmonton on an Air Canada red-eye to Toronto immediately after the Dec. 22 game.

Some of the players will stay local. The Europeans aren’t going to fly home for a three-day break, which also goes for some of the farther-flung North Americans.

Related: Who are the Lightning’s best gift-givers?

Braydon Coburn is hosting his whole family. That means his three brothers will bring their families to Tampa for a relief from winter, trading their traditions of outdoor skating for potential beach weather.

Ondrej Palat and wife Barbora typically go to the beach on Christmas Eve if it’s nice. This year, his parents will be on hand to spend the holiday with their 13-month-old granddaughter, Adela.

“I’m sure they will enjoy her,” he said. “They will take her somewhere. With just a couple of days, we don’t travel. Just relax, watch TV, Christmas movies.”

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Like Coburn, Victor Hedman has a large group coming in. His wife’s parents and sisters, his parents and a friend will all spend Christmas with him and Sanna in Tampa. And they bring some of the Swedish treats he can’t get stateside.

Anthony Cirelli is one of four Lightning players heading back to family in Ontario for the holiday. His parents host both sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. for a big mid-day meal.

Luke Schenn recounted massive gatherings of 50 to 60 people at his grandparents’ house in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. But he isn’t making that 2,500-mile trip this year and hasn’t in a while.

Often his or his wife’s parents come visit wherever they live, but this year it’s just them and their 2-year-old son, Kingston. Jessica will be making the traditional 12-dish Polish Christmas Eve meal of wigilia. She had already made 150 pierogis, stuffed with homemade cheese, on Saturday.

And because the powers on high deem the holiday worth the break, many others who would be working the broadcasts and at the arenas get to enjoy the time with their families as well.

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at dnearhos@tampabay.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.