What will the next NHL bubbles look like?

NHL

Hours before the Tampa Bay Lightning popped the 2020 NHL playoff bubble by winning the Stanley Cup, coach Jon Cooper was asked about what he’d miss about the quarantine experience.

Cooper looked to his right and gave his eyes a roll. He took a deep sigh through a smile, which was an appropriate physical reaction to that query.

“To be honest, there’s a lot of good. It’s been an experience. And for the most part, it’s been a really cool experience. I look back at some of the notes I’ve taken over time, it’ll be pretty cool to tell the story,” he said. “But probably the best part about this thing is when we check out.”

Everyone wanted out of the bubble. It was a necessity, but it was also a nuisance and an ordeal of attrition. While many were good at stifling their discontent, it occasionally slipped through a crack in their veneer, as it did for Dallas Stars coach Rick Bowness on the day of Game 6.

“We knew coming in and we were all prepared to be here nine, 10 weeks. And that’s where we are,” he said. “But no, there will not be one bit of this bubble life that I’m going to miss.”

It’s pretty clear that the 24 teams involved in the NHL postseason wanted to leave bubble life behind them — I mean, look no further than the Lightning, who went from daily COVID-19 testing to having the population of Clearwater sharing drinks from the Stanley Cup and thanking the governor of Florida for opening the bars again — but they may not be able to stay out of the bubbles forever.

NHLPA executive director Don Fehr can’t conceive of a full season in the bubble for 2020-21. “Nobody is going to do that for four months or six months or something like that,” he told The Associated Press this week.

But a short-term bubble? Or a bubble with a more porous membrane?

“Whether we could create some protected environments that people would be tested and they’d be clean when they came in and lasted for some substantially shorter period of time with people cycling in and out, is one of the things I suspect we will examine,” Fehr said.

As we reported last month, team executives are anticipating that the 2020-21 season will start in January at the earliest, with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently saying he “would not be surprised” if the start date for the 2020-21 season “slips into later December, [or] could slip into January.”

Those team executives also believed that next season could start back in the bubble. One plan being contemplated in hockey circles would have regional bubbles, with geographically localized teams competing against one another. The chatter was loud in the Edmonton bubble about an “all-Canadian Division” idea that might be necessary because of the U.S./Canada border issue. The advantage for the NHL in this plan? A chance to get the season going, before eventually returning to local arenas with fans in attendance; and starting the season with rivals facing each other, which has always been the easiest sell for the NHL.

Along with those bubbles, as Fehr indicated, there’s also talk that teams would spend some time in the bubble and then some time outside of it, so they’re not cut off from loved ones and friends again.

The NHL and the players haven’t started negotiations, with the NHLPA yet to finalize its new committee to help design another return-to-play plan next season. “Anyone who’s suggesting that they know what it’s going to be, that’s impossible. No one knows what it’s going to be right now,” said a source on the players’ side.

This is true. But when it comes to the bubbles, there are some things we do know. Or, more to the point, there are some things I hope we’ve learned in the past two-plus months. Because while there isn’t much the bubble-bound say that they’ll miss, let’s hope that everyone at least took home these lessons:

1. Patience

The season was paused on March 12. The NHL announced return-to-play plans on May 26. Toronto and Edmonton weren’t officially confirmed as the hub cities until July. There were several moments during that stretch when expediency could have trumped diligence — how close were we to trying to stage the Western Conference playoffs and the Stanley Cup Final in Las Vegas, which was still seeing spikes in cases into August?

There is obviously some time pressure for the NHL to figure out the schedule for next season, especially for those non-bubble players who haven’t participated in a competitive game in nearly seven months. But patience was absolutely a virtue in getting the restart right, from the protocols to the placement.

2. Partnership

As someone who has covered his share of labor strife in the NHL, I’m still flabbergasted that the owners and players managed to pull off a new collective bargaining agreement and find common ground on a return to play. The pandemic forced them into an unprecedented cooperation to salvage the season and chart a path ahead economically.

I truly hope this isn’t fleeting. The game is so much stronger when everyone is invested. It was the first time the vibe felt like a partnership, rather than that being a word the owners tossed out there after pummeling the players at the negotiating table.

3. Mental health awareness

A reader named Adam Eisen wrote me recently:

“I don’t know if this has been pointed out or not, but a lot of what the players and coaches have described about the bubble sounds a lot like a shorter, cushier military deployment. No friends or family. Can’t leave the facility. Have to be inside the wire. A lot of time sitting around doing nothing. Playing cards, watching movies and meals with teammates. I did that same stuff in Kuwait. And we had occasional short bursts of excitement in Iraq during the initial invasion. Then we came home and got cheered by loved ones,” he said.

“I say this to say that I understand what they went through from a mental health perspective. I’m wondering if the league considered something like that to make services available for players if they needed it. It’s different from what they signed up for with their careers. I found it interesting that one player told you he knew people wouldn’t care about their gripes because of the money they make. But everything that the players talked about sounds an awful lot like every military base I’ve been on, be it Ft. Knox, Ft. Benning or in Kuwait, Iraq or Afghanistan. Just a thought on sources the league may want to utilize for planning and logistics for next season.”

This might be the most important lesson. The NHLPA told us recently that there were additional mental health assets available in the bubble to help any players who needed it. But whether they’re in the bubbles again or on the road, I feel like there’s a new appreciation for the mental strain on these athletes. The isolation. The time away from home, especially during a pandemic. All of it.

We’re acutely aware of their physical sacrifice — and, frequently, the unfortunate ways in which they cope with that pain — but through experiences like the bubbles, their mental health is only starting to come into focus.

We’re not going to argue with a Stanley Cup champion: As Jon Cooper said, the best thing about the bubble is leaving it. But perhaps the next-best thing is becoming better for having been confined to one — especially if it has to happen again.


My three favorite Lightning celebration moments

1. Patrick Maroon

It is, shall we say, a flex when your team just won the Stanley Cup, your captain is preparing to drink from the chalice and you take a moment to search for and point to your name because you just won it last season.

2. Victor Hedman

This is a bit of a cheat to the gimmick, as we’re presenting two different Hedman moments here. The first has the Lightning defenseman and playoff MVP getting the “we’re not worthy/bow to the king” treatment from Kevin Shattenkirk.

The second features Hedman and his wife, Sanna, embracing after his 65 straight days chasing a championship dream in the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles. As much as I loathe militaristic imagery in sports, or really any commingling of the two, I can’t deny this has some real “the boys are back from overseas” energy.

3. Alex Killorn

There was really only one way for this journey to end, and that’s with Alex Killorn driving the Stanley Cup around on a jet ski. The man who gave us “Dock Talk,” and that music video where the Lightning all reunited in a jet ski armada finally ascends to his final form of “Kenny Powers, but Stanley Cup champion.”

I’d like to also propose that after the Tampa Bay boat parade, every team that wins the Stanley Cup must celebrate in a regionally appropriate way. Calgary’s wins? Cup Stampede. Colorado wins? Someone on a ski slope. Philly wins? “Rocky stairs” parade. L.A. wins again? A parade, but in bumper-to-bumper traffic, with everyone screaming about how they know a faster route. And so on.


Listen to ESPN On Ice

All killer, no filler. Emily Kaplan and I break down the Stanley Cup Final and burst the bubble with our winners and losers, plus answer your questions about the offseason. Listen, rate and subscribe here.


Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Nikita Kucherov

While the Lightning’s first-round sweep at the hands of Columbus last season was a cauldron of misery, few players were more disappointing (or disappointed) than Kucherov. I remember he was emotionally crushed after Game 4, where he had his only two points (both assists) in the series. That was following his suspension for the most critical game of the series — down 0-2, on the road — for a truly dumb hit on Markus Nutivaara. The regular-season MVP by a country mile, a non-factor in three of four losses.

Fast forward to this postseason, and you talk about redemption arcs: 34 points to lead the playoffs, including eight in the Stanley Cup Final. To reach near the top of a Conn Smythe ballot given the competition is quite the accomplishment.

Loser: Brayden Point

Before the playoffs, I predicted Victor Hedman would win the Conn Smythe if the Lightning won the Stanley Cup. I had him at the top of my Conn Smythe Watch before the Final. But truth be told, if I had a vote, I would have put Brayden Point atop my ballot. Like Kucherov, he had eight points in the Final, including five goals. Three of those goals were, to me, the most critical ones of the series: His one-man, two-goal rally in Game 4, giving the Lightning life in that critical game ahead of their overtime win; and the first goal of Game 6, which was soul-crushing coming on the power play and giving a team that was 41-10-2 this season when scoring first an early lead. He had to settle for second-place for the Conn Smythe, and a star-making postseason.

Winner: Acknowledging the moment

If there’s one Stanley Cup championship keepsake that makes sense in 2020, it’s buying a Tampa Bay Lightning commemorative face mask. You’re not telling your grandchildren about why you decided to buy a shot glass after your team won the Cup. This? Yeah, this has a story behind it.

Loser: Overemphasizing the moment

There’s a part of me that appreciates the dark humor of buying a commemorative ticket holder for a ticket that was never sold to a game played in an empty arena, including using “Edmonton Bubble” as the location. But $50 is a steep price to pay to be reminded about how inherently gloomy this all was.

Winner: The long game

One of the biggest questions asked about the Lightning, in hindsight of their Stanley Cup win, was how this team wasn’t blown up after five years of playoff disappointments, including missing the postseason one year and getting swept by the No. 8 seed. Said scout Gerry O’Flaherty, who has been with the Lightning since 2003: “We had a fantastic season last year. Set all kinds of records. We had a great nucleus of stars on our team. We didn’t want to blow up the team. We looked at complementary pieces and what we could bring in.” An interesting question some asked me this week: Could this team have done that in a more intense and demanding media market?

Loser: “Non-traditional markets”

The 2020 Stanley Cup Final was the first one played between two “sun belt” teams. It was also the lowest-rated for the NHL since 2007, when the Anaheim Ducks defeated the ratings abyss Ottawa Senators for the Cup. That series averaged 1.80 million viewers; the Lightning and Stars averaged 2.15 million when you factor in streaming. That was down 60% from last season, which featured the Blues chasing their first Cup, the ratings-driving Bruins and a Game 7.

The ratings dive was a perfect storm of bad conditions for the NHL: the unprecedented competition for eyeballs (with every sport back in play), the “COVID Cup” atmosphere for the games, the usual erosion of the NHL fan base once their team is eliminated. But here’s the sad truth: As much as hockey fans complain about the same nine teams — the Original Six, plus Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Washington — constantly jamming the airwaves, the moment two non-traditional markets are given the spotlight, the majority of us check out. This series was the lowest rated in 13 years. The Winter Classic, with the Dallas Stars hosting the Nashville Predators at the Cotton Bowl, was the lowest rated in the event’s history.

You want to change the mix of teams presented by the NHL and its TV partners? Support the matchups that don’t include them.

Winner: Off-ice Doc Emrick

The great Mike “Doc” Emrick called the games remotely for NBC Sports during the bubble playoffs. I don’t know if it was the distance or the surroundings, but his non sequiturs became delightfully bizarre as the postseason wore on. Like when he was discussing the elite skill of Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and a player such as Wayne Gretzky: “It must be a lot of fun to play when you’re that way.” Or when he confused horse racing with dressage and asked if Ed Olczyk, who joked he would be running in the Preakness, would have his “hooves painted.” Embrace the weird!

Loser: On-ice media

The virtual news conferences with the Lightning (chaotic) and Stars (sullen) were an effective way to cover the Stanley Cup victory remotely. But man, there’s just no replacing that moment when reporters get to shuffle out on the ice and capture the heartfelt moments between teammates, parents, friends and loved ones as the winning team celebrates on the ice. I miss it. I hope we get to do it again soon.

Winner: Henrik Lundqvist

Hail to the King. The New York Rangers bought out the franchise’s greatest goaltender, who certainly qualifies as New York sports royalty. The Rangers were always good at importing stars: Mark Messier, Wayne Gretzky, Jaromir Jagr, Artemi Panarin. Lundqvist was a homegrown New York sports celebrity. He was bigger than Brian Leetch. He lasted longer than Mike Richter. You’d probably have to go back to Rod Gilbert to find a comparable Rangers-born celebrity.

It’s a shame it had to end this way, but perhaps it ultimately ends with Hank doing the Ray Bourque thing and winning a Stanley Cup away from the franchise for which he was synonymous. And yes, that’s us wondering if Colorado will come calling.

Loser: Everyone at the goalie free-agent party

Look, I’ve been in a room when Henrik Lundqvist walks into it. No disrespect to the rest of the unrestricted free-agent class, but y’all are basically EBUGs until he signs.


Puck headlines

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

The top 60 free agents in the NHL, all grouped into tiers.

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