NHL players have been eager to find out what life will be like inside the bubble.
They got a first taste Sunday.
The 24 teams — each with a 52-person travelling party — set to participate in the league’s restart entered the secure zones in two Canadian cities ahead of the resumption the pandemic-halted 2019-20 season.
Players and staff checked into tightly-monitored hotels inside the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles, where they will be separated from the general population by security fencing and undergo daily COVID-19 testing.
“We’re just excited to get into our setup,” Maple Leafs winger Zach Hyman said Saturday. “Get into the hotel, see what’s available, see the lounges.”
People entering Canada usually have to isolate for a mandatory 14 days upon arrival, but the federal government approved the NHL’s modified cohort quarantine plan — 18 of the 24 teams involved in the restart are based in the United States — paving the way for the games to be held north of the 49th parallel.
Each bubble has 14 restaurants for players and staff, as well as a concierge service for deliveries.
“The really unique thing about this is we’re going to be with each other 24/7 pretty much,” Hyman said of his teammates. “That’s pretty special and doesn’t happen very often.
“It’s a very unique situation.”
Despite a number of COVID-19 hot spots across the U.S., the league reported just two positive tests during the first week of training camps. The NHL has acknowledged it expects there to be positive tests inside the bubbles, adding it has a plan to deal with that.
“My level of confidence has increased along the way,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said recently of how he was feeling about the resumption of a season that was suspended in mid-March. “I’m comfortable with the protocols and procedures we have in place. And more importantly, I’m comfortable with how all the players seem to have embraced them and taken them seriously and are adhering to them.”
BMO Field — normally the home of Toronto FC of the MLS and the CFL’s Argonauts — is part of that city’s bubble, serving as an outdoor recreation facility.
“It’s pretty impressive what they’ve been able to throw together in just over three weeks, a month,” Toronto defenceman Tyson Barrie said. “Sounds like it’s gonna be pretty good food and they’ll have some stuff set up for us, but at the end of the day when you’re in playoffs you’re not doing a whole lot anyway. You just play the game, practice, go home and rest, eat well.
“Outside of maybe a little bit of fresh air it’ll be business as usual.”
Practices will be closed to the media as teams gear up for exhibition games starting Tuesday.
Eastern Conference teams are in Toronto, while Western Conference clubs are in Edmonton for the first three rounds. The conference and Stanley Cup finals will be held in Alberta capital.
The best-of-five qualifying round begins Saturday, along with a seeding tournament for the top four teams in each conference. The Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks all are in the qualifying round.
Four-time Grammy winner Michael Buble is slated to perform the national anthems for the opening games next weekend, while video game company EA Sports is set to provide crowd noise inside the fan-less Scotiabank Arena and Rogers Place.
The NHL, which entered the final phase of its restart the same day it was announced four-time Cup winner Eddie Shack had died and Hall of Fame centre Dale Hawerchuk is battling cancer for a second time, plans to use individual teams’ goal horns and chants to add to the atmosphere.
At one of the two bubble locations in Toronto, a major intersection was blocked off near the Fairmont Royal York hotel as team buses arrived, while a van from DynaLIFE Medical Labs, which is performing the COVID-19 testing, was seen entering Hotel X at Exhibition Place just west of downtown. The league insists its testing won’t take away from public resources in either jurisdiction.
Officials with the Oilers and local Indigenous leaders held a pipe ceremony Sunday at Rogers Place just outside of a plaza surrounded by a fence that marked the boundary for the bubble.
“It was very, very, very special because it gives us an opportunity to welcome hockey, welcome the world back to Edmonton, to also welcome them to our territory of Treaty 6,” Chief Wilton Littlechild said. “The elder prayed for continued good health and safety for all the players, fans, all the staff, media, all who are going to be participating.”
Inside the fence, picnic tables and a basketball hoop were set up, and three food trucks were already open.
“This is at the core of making sure we can run this tournament safely,” Oilers spokesman Tim Shipton said about the sealed-off area, adding officials have worked in conjunction with Alberta Health to balance safety with the players’ needs. “One of the things we heard loud and clear from our players was fresh air.
“The players didn’t want to be indoors for weeks and weeks.”
Canucks head coach Travis Green said a key will be to embrace the new normal.
“There’s probably going to be times where you might want to complain,” he said. “Those are things we talk about in a normal season, that we don’t need energy-suckers. There’s no sense complaining about things. It’s different right now, and that’s OK.
“Let’s embrace it. Let’s be excited about playing.”
— With files from Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton.