When asked about the worst part of NHL bubble life and what he misses the most, the answer from Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper is basically: How much time do you have?
“I missed an anniversary, birthday, another one is coming up,” said the 53-year-old Cooper, who has twin daughters and a son with wife Jesse. “First day of school. Hockey tournaments. My daughter making the swimming team. My other daughter going to her first dance class …
“You don’t get to see some of these milestones in your kids’ life and your wife’s life. Those are the tough parts.”
Dallas Stars counterpart Rick Bowness referenced the movie “Groundhog Day” while discussing the repetitive nature of days at Edmonton’s JW Marriott Hotel and Rogers Place, the only places he’s seen since the NHL season restarted.
“I haven’t walked on grass for eight weeks,” said Bowness. “You need distractions. You come to the rink, you’re all wired up, we’re all tense. You need to have that little break, like going for dinner with your wife, going for a walk outside, going for a run. I love to run outside, and I can’t do that.
“All the things you want to do that you normally do, it’s not there. You find other ways.”
There has been a lot to like about how the NHL has pulled off its Stanley Cup playoffs during the coronavirus pandemic, hiving off the league from the rest of the world. After eight weeks in Edmonton and — until the conference finals — Toronto, the NHL has conducted 32,374 tests without a single positive for COVID-19.
“The league has done a phenomenal job of keeping everyone safe,” said Bowness. “I’m 65. I had big concerns coming in; I have no concerns now, being tested and masked. It’s a very safe environment. Give the league credit. But that being said, the grind, that’s tough.”
There are signs of frayed nerves among those who remain in the bubble.
“Everyone is getting cooped up a little bit, so you let out your anger on the ice,” said Tampa forward Tyler Johnson. “Going into this, people were wondering what playoff hockey would be like. The questions have been answered. It’s been physical. Guys are doing everything they can to win.”
Indeed, it’s been a physical final with more than 100 hits delivered in each of the first two games, and penalties piling up.
Usually it takes a couple of games for the emotional intensity of a Stanley Cup final to ramp up. It always features a team from the Eastern Conference against one from the West, so there’s typically no historic rivalry. No bad blood left over from the regular season. No bones to be picked. No scores to settle.
But it seems the Lightning and Stars were in a surly mood. Right off the hop, these teams didn’t like each together.
“When there’s no change in your routine — other than a couple of days — for eight weeks, you get a little edgy,” said Bowness.
This week, ESPN got nine players to speak anonymously about life in the bubble and, while none regretted participating, they each had a laundry list of things they didn’t like. Some teams treated players better than others — with Montreal’s meals considered notably better than Florida’s, for example.
At times they felt like victims of a bait-and-switch holiday resort package, with outings for golf and fly-fishing either next to impossible to organize or non-existent.
They were also angry that the NHL didn’t fulfil its promise to bring players’ families into the bubble for the final month — Canadian government quarantining policies cited as the reason. They looked enviously at the NBA, operating at the Disney resort in Florida, which not only brought families in but provided schooling.
With the best-of-seven series tied 1-1 heading into Wednesday night’s Game 3, it’s dawning on both finalists that if they should win the Cup, their families won’t be with them.
“I know a lot of people are disappointed,” said Johnson. “This is a big moment in our life, and not being able to share it with family and loved ones is pretty tough. But we also know they’re supporting us right now, and we’re trying to get our job done.”
At the same time, the finalists consider themselves the lucky ones.
“This is tough living,” said Bowness, “but there’s no place we’d rather be. We’re in the Stanley Cup final.”