OK, the circumstances were different, extraordinary even against the backdrop of this extraordinarily challenging time, but Saturday wasn’t the first time Tuukka Rask disappeared.
Rask, 33, abruptly packed up in Toronto, in the thick of the Stanley Cup playoffs, letting it be known he needed to be with his wife and three kids.
He left the protected NHL bubble.
He left his team to a 12:20 p.m. start against Carolina in Round 1 of the playoffs.
Unless there is some equally astonishing reversal, his 2019-20 season has officially, and astonishingly, come to an end. By Rask’s own choice.
“There are things more important than hockey in my life,” he said, as relayed through the club’s media release issued late in the morning, “and that is being with my family.”
That should sound familiar. It was nearly verbatim what he said in November 2018 when GM Don Sweeney granted him a leave of absence, thrusting the netminding duties that weekend entirely in the hands of Jaroslav Halak, the same guy who was tossed the car keys Saturday.
What we have here is Déjà vu Tuukka. Not good.
In 2018, Rask returned three days later, noting it was time he needed to spend away, do right by his family, and he plugged seamlessly back into the job and led the Bruins to within one win of capturing the Cup last spring.
“This was a time that, deep inside my heart,” Rask said upon returning from his brief LOA, “I felt like I needed to take time to be with my family and make things right, so I can be back here and focus on my job.”
Look, we don’t really know what’s going on here, because whatever the state of Rask’s family dynamics, whatever influence they have on his mindset for the job, that’s his business.
What we do know with absolute certainty, though, is that Rask now twice has proven he is unable to balance being both family man and franchise goalie. That’s trouble. That’s no way to run a hockey team, never mind try to survive four grueling rounds of postseason play and capture what would be the franchise’s seventh Stanley Cup in its near century of existence.
All of which points to Rask not being here whenever — if ever — the 2020-21 season starts. It’s time for both sides to shake hands, recall the many good memories, and move on to situations that are better, more predictable fits for both.
For two sides bonded over a ring of vulcanized rubber, this is not a marriage that works.
Rask is a very good guy. He is an excellent goalie, among the top five in the NHL. Teammates like him a ton. He was a hoot-and-a-half when all the members of the 2011 Cup-winning team met for a Zoom reunion late in the spring. They gifted him a fancy set of drums this season when he played his 500th NHL regular-season game. They rightly appreciate he is the winningest goalie in franchise history.
From a media standpoint, he is a true joy, often glib and self-effacing. In a room full of players who increasingly recite near-scripted, feckless responses and clichés — as they did Saturday when asked about him — he has been a dependable, oft-humorous quote.
Maybe things are a mess at home. Or perhaps all the Rasks simply realized they no longer could bear the thought of possibly being apart until the first week of October. For anyone who has had to deal with family strife, the kind that keeps you staring at the ceiling at night, or worrying incessantly and obsessively while at work, that can be a terrible, exhausting experience.
Who wouldn’t sympathize with someone who’s not happy on the homefront?
“We understand completely where Tuukka is coming from,” Sweeney said late Saturday morning, filling a media opportunity that originally was slated for coach Bruce Cassidy. “I don’t think it’s any big surprise to us, to be honest with you. We’re privy to information maybe before the rest of the public is, and this has been a difficult decision for Tuukka. But the Boston Bruins are in full support of why he made this decision.”
Sweeney is a compassionate guy. He has made clear, from the time he took over the GM job five years ago, that he is intent on cultivating a family-first culture on Causeway Street. No doubt we are a long, long way from Original Six days when a Bruin with a bad shift on a Saturday night was handed a Greyhound ticket to Oklahoma City on Sunday morning. Aided only by a kick in the ass to help board the bus.
So good for Sweeney, and good for Rask, and good for anyone who aspires to be, or to remain, a member of the “We Are Family” Spoked-B franchise.
But Sweeney, one of 32 GMs (welcome, Kraken!) who oversee a league-wide payroll of some $2.5 billion, knows all too well he can’t live with such uncertainty, especially at the No. 1 goalie spot. There are enough bad, unexpected bounces in the game. Heck, hockey is a sport built on crazy hops and deflections and ricochets. Why set yourself up for another? In net!
To say Sweeney likes control is to say Joey Chestnut appreciates a good hot dog. No matter how compassionate and understanding, he is the guy in charge of the Jeremy Jacobs black-and-gold wallet.
Think Sweeney or team president Cam Neely care to risk going back to Jacobs again one day to explain why Rask, uh, didn’t answer the bell. Think again.
Leaving the bubble, by the way, technically does not terminate Rask’s season. A check with the league office on Saturday confirmed that a player who leaves can return, although he would have to conform to quarantine conditions established in the league’s Return To Play agreement, as well as the protocols set forth by the cities of Toronto or Edmonton (if the Bruins were to make it beyond the second round).
So, yes, it’s possible that things quiet down at home for Rask and he asks back in a week or two. But that’s not a bet to make. Rask has one year left on his contract and the Bruins have the right to trade him to one of the 15 teams he was obligated to name months ago as the February trade deadline approached. Sweeney will be working the phones.
New NHL or not, some things never go out of date. One of those is the need for the GM and coach to know who can be counted on during good times, bad times, and especially playoff time.
From here, it looks like Rask’s time is finished.