They’re almost there. As of Thursday, the NHL reported zero positive tests for COVID-19 for the week. On Sunday, the league will descend on Edmonton and Toronto, ready for a masked-up, socially distant, 24-team chase for the Stanley Cup.
Mathieu Schneider, the former defenseman now working as the right-hand man for NHLPA head Donald Fehr, sees this as a space mission. He compared life in the bubble to a trip to Mars.
“No one’s ever been in there,” Schneider said. “We’ll have to work through things. I’m sure we’re going to face a ton of challenges. We might have a good book when we get out of there.”
Hopefully, someone will write an honest one.
Hockey’s back, and we’re pleased to cover what unfolds on the ice over the next 10 weeks. The NHL has put a lot of thought into its return-to-play plan, covering everything from testing to ice conditions (with no fans or morning skates in the game rinks, the ice should be ideal, even for three games a day). The league and the NHLPA hammered out a collective bargaining agreement without a work stoppage.
There’s a lot of fascinating stuff ahead for hockey fans, deprived of the sweet sounds of whirring skates and whizzing rubber biscuits these last four-plus months.
But we would be remiss if we didn’t first take stock of some small-minded behavior by the NHL.
Forever working against its own interests as it tries to grow the game, the league is not allowing independent media to report from inside its bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton.
As of Friday, four American reporters planned to cross the border — Samantha Pell of the Washington Post and John Wawrow of the Associated Press were going to Toronto, Sarah McClellan of the Minnesota Star-Tribune and Adrian Dater of Colorado Hockey Now were setting up shop in Edmonton — for the opening of the playoffs. Aside from being allowed to watch the games from a perch in the arena, they will be restricted.
No face-to-face interactions, which are the lifeblood of good story telling. No first-hand account of what the plans and diagrams the NHL released late this past week actually look like in person. No view of anything but the games of the teams they cover, then a timely exit from the rink and more Zoom calls.
The Globe is assessing its options as the rounds go on.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league doesn’t expect to change those access rules, leaning on the “health and safety” aspect of the explanation. More media, Daly said, would be an “unnecessary risk” that could “overburden the system.”
That doesn’t hold water considering the league is welcoming three writers for NHL.com — most of them former print journalists, and good ones, but league employees nonetheless — and 24 team-specific “content creators.” This means that the first recording, of a never-before-seen postseason involving up to 744 players from 24 teams, 170 games and 350 practices over a span of 70 days, will be a sanitized, league-approved version.
Meanwhile, the NBA is allowing reporters inside the bubble to chronicle the most unique time in its history. Globe ace Gary Washburn is one of 17 reporters granted access in Orlando. After quarantining, he is to be tested regularly, and he and his peers will be able to do interesting, factual reporting. You will know what’s really happening when multimillionaire athletes live together for two months in the middle of a pandemic, and whether the league is making good on its stated objectives. He will be your honest eyes and ears.
The NHL’s denial is shortsighted, and shortchanges everyone who loves the game, particularly the millions of fans who invest their money and time. They deserve an unfiltered view, particularly considering this venture involves public health and taxpayer interests. Now is the time for more depth and insight, not less transparency. Having hundreds of passionate members of the media, pros from every hockey-loving country, covering the postseason every year provides a spring smorgasbord for fans.
The NHL has repeatedly told the Professional Hockey Writers Association that our ever-shrinking access is not normal, and that it believes in our partnership. It has said these new access limitations will not carry beyond the time of a global pandemic. Its words are difficult to believe.
“The NHL has always tried to obsessively control the media narrative by restricting or granting access,” said agent Allan Walsh, an outspoken voice on many matters. “This is not a player safety issue, it’s a pretext that will backfire. This kind of backward thinking continually holds the NHL back.”
Bruins have expansion decisions to make
Not the Sockeyes. Not the Metropolitans. Not the Evergreens.
Release the Kraken, they did.
When they hit their first losing streak, they’ll be the Seattle Squids. But first, the NHL’s 32nd franchise has to pay the final installments of that $650 million expansion fee, the last expected in March 2021.
By then, they’ll have sold enough merchandise to fill up Puget Sound. That deep-sea blue home jersey, with its “S” logo, anchors and tentacles, is a winner.
Now for the important question: Which current Bruin will be wearing it?
We don’t know when the Seattle 32s will have their pick, so we can only project using today’s roster. Let’s assume for this exercise that every UFA- and RFA-to-be reaches an extension (dinner, starting with a calamari appetizer, is on Torey Krug).
Anyone with three or more years of pro experience is eligible for the expansion draft. To help stack the deck in Vegas three years ago, Boston used a 7-3-1 model (protecting seven forwards, three defensemen, and a goalie), as opposed to the other option, eight skaters and a goalie. The Knights selected defenseman Colin Miller, who spent last season as a regular scratch in Buffalo at a $3.875 million cap hit.
The Bruins must protect Brad Marchand, Charlie Coyle, and Patrice Bergeron because they have no-movement clauses. They will protect David Pastrnak because he is David Pastrnak.
If they used a 7-3-1 model, the other three forwards might be Jake DeBrusk, Anders Bjork, and Ondrej Kase, assuming they solidify their supporting-cast roles.
If Krug stays and Matt Grzelcyk remains on his upward development curve, the Bruins could submit an 8-1 list. This would let them keep Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Krug, and Grzelcyk, and Marchand, Coyle, Bergeron, and Pastrnak up front. It would hurt to lose someone like DeBrusk, who would surely be plucked.
Tuukka Rask is sure to be a keeper — somehow. Since the deals for Rask ($7 million) and David Krejci ($7.25 million) will expire next year, the Bruins could leave them off their protected list and let them become free agents. That could work if they are confident they can re-sign them. If Rask re-ups before the draft, he would fill the goalie slot. But if they go the UFA route, they could protect the most promising young goalie in the system (Jeremy Swayman, Kyle Keyser, or Dan Vladar). Again, that’s if Rask and Don Sweeney agree on term and dough. Krejci, same thing. It could be a fine line for Sweeney to walk.
Like 29 of their brethren (Vegas is exempt), the Bruins will be shipping a valuable piece to the Pacific Northwest. If they don’t snatch a Grzelcyk, DeBrusk, Kase or Bjork, the Kraken’s tentacles could wrap around Trent Frederic, Nick Ritchie, Karson Kuhlman, Sean Kuraly, Connor Clifton, or Jeremy Lauzon.
Krug could be going elsewhere regardless.
“One of the first things we talk about in this locker room is being aware of the situation that’s right in front of you, and then accepting that situation,” Krug said. “For me, it’s no secret that this could potentially be the last run I have at winning a Cup with this group. Not only that, I get to do that while I’m stuck in a bubble with all those guys and get to enjoy their company 24/7 for as long as we’re there. I’m just trying to enjoy it.
“That’s the fun part of it. Going to battle, and we get to return to a hotel room and reminisce on the games and create better memories than we already have right now. I’m excited about the opportunity. I know those guys are, as well.”
Don’t expect much fraternizing
The downtown Toronto area where the Bruins are staying, Hotel X, is next to a soccer stadium. BMO Field is ready for outdoor activities, game viewing, and dining. Up the street, the Royal York Hotel and its sunny patio deck are connected to Scotiabank Arena by an NHL-use-only underground tunnel.
In a two-block area in Edmonton, the league will have the JW Marriott, Delta, and Sutton Place hotels, and the palatial confines of Rogers Place, which has an on-site practice rink.
Each city has 14 secure and “diverse restaurants, bars, pubs, and coffee shops,” the league said, a slew of fitness centers and eight activity spaces (think: tennis courts, TopGolf suites, movie theaters, places to run around and play ball). Eventually, they might have “excursions,” such as golf.
Players may not take advantage, certainly not if they’ll have to play with others not wearing their colors.
“I don’t have any interest,” said Torey Krug, who has a lot of close friends around the league he does not plan to chat with until the offseason, even if they pass each other in the hall. Teams will get their own hotel floors and hangout spots, so don’t expect any soccer games to break out among players on different teams.
“You’re going to war with them every single night, especially in a playoff series,” Krug said. “To see guys outside the rink, it’s tough to do. I think I speak for most guys in our room saying we’re going to stay together as a group, collectively.”
Every team will have its own goal songs and chants piped in — that blasted Columbus cannon lives on — but on opening night Aug. 1, fans will see a new game, NHL chief of content Steve Mayer said. Renderings shared by the league show LED screens, monitors, and staging filling the lower bowl. Mayer said the league will use 32 cameras for a broadcast, a dozen more than a normal game. One of the new angles comes from a tracking cam, called a JITACAM, that dollies back and forth at ice level, over the crowd.
“You’re going to get an amazing feel for the speed of our game,” Mayer promised. “We can go in the stands and show camera angles we’ve never seen before.”
Puck and player tracking will not be in operation for the first two rounds, but could be available for the conference finals and Cup Final.
A good question for one of the league’s top medical consultants, Dr. Winne Meeuwisse: If a player tests positive on a team inside the bubble, will the whole team have to self-isolate?
“In the healthcare setting there’s a number of protective measures that can be taken like we’re taking in the bubble,” Meeuwisse said. “The one thing we cannot do with players is put masks on them when they play, but we’re mitigating that risk by doing testing on a daily basis.
“We still will do contact tracing because there’s degrees of exposure, and if we feel a degree of exposure is unusually high, they still may be quarantined.
“I think it will continue to be the case that if players are quite uncomfortable, that they have the option not to participate.”
What might cause them to cancel this whole thing, or plow ahead without some teams (as Major League Soccer did with its tournament)? That’s to be determined.
Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league will lean on the advice of medical experts and local authorities. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly, speaking in generalities, added that one positive test would not burst the bubble, but that “an outbreak” would.
“Obviously, we’re all living day to day here,” Daly said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Quick takes on some of the better play-in series: The Hurricanes have the best-looking defense in the postseason, with Dougie Hamilton back. The Rangers should start Henrik Lundqvist. If it goes well, great. If not, turning to Igor Shesterkin will be an easy call … There’s a lot of talk about Leon Draisaitl, but Connor McDavid should take over the Edmonton-Chicago series … Which team will look to trade pieces of its core after this postseason: the Flames (Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm) or the Jets (Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler)? … The best “skill vs. will” series, the biggest clash of styles, is Toronto-Columbus. The Jackets will try to grind the Leafs to fibers … Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy doesn’t think the coronavirus will have ended the post-playoff handshake tradition. “I think you can still go through the line,” Cassidy said, suggesting a fist bump. “Maybe by that far down the road, you never know. Maybe a handshake will be something we can do.” … It’s wild to see former Montreal star Alex Kovalev, not known for his practice habits as a player, appointed as head coach of the KHL’s Kunlun Red Star. The Slash, followed by Glen Murray’s goal in 2004, is one of the most bewildering moments in recent Boston-Montreal history … Breakout candidate watch: Vegas’s Alex Tuch said he lost 10 pounds during the pause, and is in the best shape of his life. The Knights have one of the best top-six groups in the league. If the Boston College product can drive the third line (with Chandler Stephenson and Nicolas Roy), the Knights could come out of the West … TV programming notes: NESN will carry Thursday’s Bruins-Blue Jackets exhibition game with an hour of pregame and postgame analysis. The Aug. 2 round-robin opener against the Flyers is on NBC (3 p.m.). NESN will take the Aug. 5 game against the Lightning, and likely the Aug. 9 date with the Capitals. The majority of first-round games will be on NESN … The Islanders released renderings of their rink, UBS Arena at Belmont Park. Jarring to see the scoreboard hanging over the Islanders logo at center ice, and no black holes and/or cars at one end of the rink. If you liked watching hockey at Barclays Center, frankly, I don’t see how … Oskar Lindblom signed a three-year, $9 million extension with the Flyers. Lindblom, 23, had 11 goals and 18 points in 30 games before he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in December. He will be cheered in every rink when he returns, likely next season … Tampa Bay netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy on his activities during quarantine: “I was buzzing on the Bayshore, shirtless, rollerblading. I just got a jet ski for myself. I was fishing five days a week, for sure. I even caught a small shark a few weeks ago. I know it’s a tough time, but at least I have some happy moments during this quarantine.” Wonder what he’ll be up to in the bubble.