The Bruins’ playoff contingent, a party of 50-plus, will jet off to Toronto on Sunday for the start of what could be 71 days on the road chasing the Stanley Cup.
The charter flight’s underbelly will be full of bags carrying at least a couple of guitars (lead stummers: Brad Marchand and Jeremy Lauzon), bunches of books, untold decks of cards, PlayStations and laptops, and a Halloween’s motherlode of treats to satisfy the sweet-toothed cravings of a roster of more than 30 NHLers, ages 21-43.
“Yeah, Snickers,” said rookie forward Jack Studnicka, revealing the No. 1 item on his playoff camp survival kit. “I do love Snickers bars. It’s kind of my go-to snack.”
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the NHL has been forced to bundle up its 24 playoff teams and station them in two Canadian sites — Edmonton and Toronto — for a postseason tournament like none in league history.
The Bruins, like their brethren on 23 other teams, in recent days had to pack for a journey that could end abruptly in elimination early next month or stretch all the way to Game 7 of the Cup Final on Oct. 4 in northern Alberta.
“You could have a foot and a half of snow there by then,” noted Marchand, proud son of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a man well-versed in Canadian meteorology. “So, it’s kind of tough to plan what clothes to bring.”
The L’il Ball o’ Hate’s answer: the “everyman” suitcase full of extra sweat shirts and sweat pants.
“Stuff that will be good in the snow,” he mused. “We’re not allowed to go outside anyway, so you don’t really need a jacket.”
The 700-plus players split across the two cities essentially will be in quarantine-like bubbles, confined to secure campuses comprised mainly of their hotel and connected by transportation — in some cases foot power — to nearby practice rinks and the main arenas. In the hotels, players will have access to fitness centers as well as recreation lounges and meeting rooms dedicated to their teams.
Overall, they will operate under strict league and provincial orders not to stray beyond their hotels and campuses. The order of the day, what could be 2½ months for some, will be hockey, sleep, and find a way to keep busy.
“My son won’t allow me to bring his PlayStation,” kidded team president Cam Neely. “So I stocked up on some books.”
By the eye of team captain Zdeno Chara, it’s not really about what goes into the bag in these kinds of circumstances. Succeeding in big journeys is more about a mind-set than a checklist of goods or the comforting salve of a deep Netflix binge.
Chara, the NHL’s oldest player at 43, arrived in North America from Slovakia nearly a quarter-century ago to begin his career journey to the unknown. Then only 19, he traveled to St. Louis for the 1996 NHL Draft with little more than the clothes he was wearing and the few items he shoveled into his one carry-on bag for the flight out of Bratislava.
“I took one suit, I think,” Big Z recalled the other day. “Otherwise, you know, shoes, sneakers, some stuff like that. Casual clothing. And that was it.”
What he initially planned to be a one-week, one-suitcase trip ended up being a two-year stay in Canada and the US, Chara explained, because it quickly became clear to him that his best chance of kick-starting his career was to tell NHL and junior team scouts that he was open to playing immediately in North America. In a matter of days, the Islanders selected him in the draft, and the Prince George (British Columbia) Cougars followed suit in Western Hockey League junior draft.
“I knew the risk/reward involved,” recalled Chara, “and the chance of going back and kind of repacking, and then coming back to North America, was almost slim to none.”
Slovakia at the time had a mandatory military requirement, said Chara, that would have forced him to report almost immediately to duty for at least 18 months had he chosen to go home. He was also concerned a return to Slovakia might trigger IIHF-mandated financial requirements — compensation possibly earmarked for his last team in Slovakia — that he feared the Islanders might opt not to pay.
“That was risky,‘' said Chara. “Because, who knows, the Islanders might have said, ‘No, we’re not going to pay for him … we don’t have the budget,’ or, ‘Well, you know what, he’s not worth it for us.’ Then I would be back home stuck in the army and who knows what happens, right?”
He stayed, played a season in Prince George, then spent the next season, his first as a pro, between AHL Kentucky and the Islanders. When he returned home in the summer of 1998, for the first time since packing up his one bag for St. Louis, he was 21 with a secure foot on the NHL career path.
“I made up my mind,” said Chara, recalling the flurry of quick , smart decisions he made that summer of 1996. “I had a few things with me, and I didn’t care what I had in my bag. What was important was what was inside of my head and my heart — and that was playing hockey, and commitment and discipline and work ethic. I just wanted to make it.”
The stay in the bubble will have its challenges, no matter what gets stuffed in those bags loaded onto the Bruins’ charter. Games and practices will fill their work hours, and the odd Snickers bar or protein shake can satisfy the occasional craving. But the idle hours of a long postseason run into September has the potential to trigger cabin fever for some.
“I think that is definitely a concern maybe some guys have,” said goalie Tuukka Rask, whose workload, in terms of playing minutes, portends to be the heaviest. “It is one thing if you can go to a place, leave, and go do things. But we are not really going to have that opportunity here. You can’t just go outside for a walk, or go get a coffee … we are going to be really tight and confined to the hotel.”
Rask loves to play the drums, and was gifted a fine set by his teammates this season when he became the winningest goalie in franchise history. But cool-hand “Tuukks” won’t be hauling his Lars Ulrich kit to Toronto.
Instead, Lauzon and Marchand, the guitar-playing Black and Gold brothers, will have charge of the instrumentals. Ah, if only Rask had dared to drum.
“Exactly,” said Marchand, noting the possibility to “put a show on every night.”
“There’s definitely going to be some days when they get long, and nights when they get long, where you go a little bit crazy,” added Rask. “But at end of the day really only four teams will go through that. And two teams at the end of the day will go the distance. For those two teams, it’s going to be worth it.”
In interviews with a dozen team members in recent days, the most common survival tools included tablets and gaming devices, as well as board games, cards, and books, though most said their tomes would be in digital form.
“We’re going to have a lot of extra time, and to be honest, I gamed a lot,” said left winger Jake DeBrusk, referring to the long league-wide lockdown that began March 12. “So fresh out of quarantine, I want to say I am kind of bored of it. I am definitely looking for different things to do.”
Veteran center Charlie Coyle said he’ll have some books and plans to keep busy on his Netflix account. Overall, the long playoff run in Boston last spring, that carried the Bruins to Game 7 of the Cup Final, had a rhythm and routine he enjoyed.
“Obviously, this wasn’t going on,” he said, noting the pall of the pandemic. “But you’d go play a game or practice and you’d want to get your rest anyway, right? I mean, it’s nice to get out for a walk — I don’t know what it is going to be when we get to Toronto. But for the most part, it’s nice to rest and relax.”
During the 2004-05 lockout, Chara played in Sweden, and dedicated much of his downtime there to becoming fluent in a new language. He mastered English long ago, one of the handful of languages he speaks, so learning the native tongue won’t be necessary in either hub city.
Like that big trip to St. Louis long ago, with but one bag in his hand, Chara figures he “will keep it simple” when packing this time for the playoffs. His list includes casual clothes, reading material, and the crucial supply of vitamins and diet supplements he takes for his strict, plant-based diet.
“We’ll all be at the hotel,” said the well-traveled big man, “and we pretty much won’t be allowed to go outside the environment that we’ll be presented. So, I will keep it simple. I don’t think it’s rocket science.”
No, but it could be 10 weeks in space they’ve never traveled. Simple, and maybe a bit of Snickers, could carry them a long way.