When Edmonton was named one of the NHL’s two hub cities, work immediately began to prepare the “bubble” for players and staff.
The bubble comes with amenities, such as 14 restaurants and three food trucks for players and staff, as well as concierge services for deliveries.
Despite the best of efforts to make the restricted area as comfortable as possible, living in it has been an adjustment for the 700 players and 300 staff. Among the most significant changes are the obvious: no physical contact with family and friends and no venturing outside the bubble.
Health and performance psychologist John Stevenson works with a number of NHL players. He said the most important aspect of adjusting for the athletes is finding a routine.
“You’ll see that the top guys that I work with, in a lot of ways they’ve just adapted to the situation and they’re still trying to ground themselves in their routine as if they were playing before,” Stevenson said.
For many players, a typical routine includes finding a way to escape the pressure and stress of competing in the NHL, but living in the bubble means a lot fewer options to do so.
In an article on The Players’ Tribune website, Edmonton Oilers forward James Neal wrote that many of his teammates have been spending their free time playing video games to escape.
“The gaming here… I don’t even know what to say,” Neal wrote. “There are guys who’ve brought every single piece of gaming equipment they own: double monitors, PC rigs, you name it. If you took it away, they’d be lost.”
Stevenson said some players have also been spending their free time speaking with family, playing musical instruments and even meditating.
“The key is focus on the things you have direct control over, and that’s what I’m looking for, is the athletes who have grounded themselves in a routine,” Stevenson said. “It sounds cliché-ish, but improvise, adapt and overcome, and really keeping your focus on what you can do in the moment and keeping your focus on your job.”
The psychologist said he prepared his NHL clients to enter the bubble similarly to getting ready for training camp.
“With COVID(-19) happening, there was a lot of athletes that started doing training that they had never done before, so a lot of mental training, mindfulness, breath work, mental rehearsal — so a lot of that work they did to keep their focus on being prepared to go into that camp.”
Stevenson said anyone who has to go into a quarantine or isolation as a result of COVID-19 should also focus on routine and the things that are under their control.
“Really making sure you’re taking time to take care for yourself and whatever that may be,” he said. “I know for some people just getting that chance to get outside and go for a walk and getting some fresh air.
“Any kind of social connections… there’s a tendency to get isolated here, and any type of connections you can make with family or friends, I think that’s a really key important thing to do.”
With the Stanley Cup final ending as late as the first week of October, the two finalists could spend over two months in a bubble before a champion is crowned. It means this year’s NHL playoffs could be more about the mental side of the game than the physical.