Since joining the Hurricanes full time in 2011, Hurricanes.com senior editor Michael Smith estimates he’s prepared for, and embarked on, at least 100 road trips (he began traveling with the team in 2014-15). Safe to say he’s never experienced anything like the trip he’ll be joining the Canes on at the end of this week.
Smith will be part of the Hurricanes’ 52-person traveling party that will depart Raleigh on July 26 and spend at least a couple weeks, if not much longer, in one of the league’s two “bubbles” or “secure zones” in Toronto. The Hurricanes will start their qualifier series against the Rangers Aug. 1, and should the team keep advancing, would play the next two rounds in Toronto and the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final in Edmonton.
Smith is excited to tell “the most unique stories that I might ever have the chance to tell” in what all hope will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience in the bubble. Still, he knows there’s uncertainty ahead with a trip like no other.
“I’m really excited, especially, too, because I think the team that’s here is really good and has a chance to maybe do a little damage in the playoffs,” Smith said. “So from a pure hockey standpoint, it could be pretty interesting to follow as well. On the other side of it, obviously, is being away from home for an indeterminate amount of time. So, my wife isn’t as pleased with that, but we’ve seen a lot of each other over the last four months.”
Since training camp began, the members of the team’s traveling parties have been under instructions from the league to stay safe and take precautions in the weeks before.
Smith has been sitting separately from the rest of the media covering Hurricanes training camp in the lower bowl of PNC Arena (the majority of media is seated on the ledge lounge, with social distancing of course). He and the team’s other travelers have been instructed to take as many precautions as possible, such as wearing masks, social distancing, staying home as much as possible (Smith said he’s basically going from his home to the rink and that’s it), getting delivery or take out for meals rather than dining in, etc.
All of these are measures that most team personnel have taken throughout the pandemic, but they take on added importance now, as it’s crucial that no one bring a COVID-19 infection into the bubble. Unlike the players, Smith and the other members of the traveling party aren’t being tested regularly yet, but will be tested three times before departure.
“It’s not much different from what I’ve been doing for the last four months, because I think a lot of us have already been doing a lot of those things,” Smith said. “Obviously with things being opened back up we’ve been able to go out maybe for a beer or something at a brewery, but I’m not doing that now just to be as safe as possible.”
One mode of preparation that takes on an especially unique form for a trip like this: Packing. Smith knows he could be gone for two weeks, or for two and a half months. His plan is to bring his work backpack, and maybe “try to stuff a little extra stuff in there.”
Smith said he’s leaning towards packing enough clothes for two weeks, because the team could be back in Raleigh at the end of that time, though he hopes that isn’t the case, and he’ll be able to do laundry.
Entertainment wise, Smith said he has a stack of books he’s been meaning to read, and his XBox One might just have to find its way to Toronto. While he anticipates the evening hours could get a little boring, he knows there will also be plenty of work to do, with game days more or less following their normal routine.
“Like Justin Williams was saying a few weeks ago, it’s not going to be like the TV show Alone,” Smith said. “We’re going to be in a pretty nice hotel and we’ll have as many comforts of home as we can manage to pack in our suitcases.”
Life in the bubble
Obviously, safety will be the name of the game in the bubble. All players and team personnel will be tested for COVID-19 daily, with daily temperature checks and symptom screenings as well. Anyone who tests positive or shows symptoms will be isolated. Each team’s traveling party will have its own hotel floor, with each person having their own room.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Smith and the others will be confined to their room outside of games. There’s been talk of the hotels, and perhaps other areas inside the bubble, being set up with amenities such as restaurants and entertainment options such as movie theaters for those within the secure zone.
“We haven’t really heard much of what will be available to us but hopefully there are some things where we can get out and spend some time outside somewhere other than our hotel rooms,” Smith said.
Smith also hopes that, since they’ll all be within the same bubble, he’ll be able to interact with and spend some time with his peers from around the league.
“I suppose if they were in the hotel we might be able to eat at a restaurant or something together, wearing masks of course,” Smith said. “But again, if they’re part of the bubble, and everybody’s getting tested every day, I would think that we’d probably be able to at least share a meal together if nothing else.”
The safety measures will start on the plane there, with no in-flight service.
There will be housekeeping in the bubble hotels, but likely only three days a week, and definitely not every day as, even in a secure bubble, limiting contact to keep things as safe as possible will be paramount.
“I think even though there’s constant testing and constant temperature taking and screenings and stuff like that, they’re going to try to make sure that we’re staying as safe, healthy and sanitary as we can be,” Smith said. “So there will be a designated dropoff for delivery food. They’re going to have it as locked down as they can, because honestly, that’s the only way it can be pulled off. The bubble has to be a bubble for this to go smoothly. And hopefully it will.”
Each team is required to bring at least one content producer into the bubble with them. For the Hurricanes, that will be Smith and videographer Zack Brame. Vice President of Communications and Team Services Mike Sundheim and Manager of Communications and Team Services Pace Sagester will be headed to Toronto as well.
The team will also have plenty of content produced from Raleigh, where a number of website and social media staff will remain, along with the team’s broadcast crew of Mike Maniscalco, Tripp Tracy, Abby Labar and Shane Willis.
While Smith and Brame will be part of the same bubble as the players, post game and post practice interviews will still be conducted over Zoom in the interest of safety. Smith plans to have daily content on the team’s website, and expects game day production will mostly look the same. He and Maniscalco plan to produce as many regular episodes of their “Canes Cast” podcast as possible.
Any media traveling into the bubbles from the United States would normally have to quarantine for 14 days, so there may not be a ton of outside media, save those already in Canada. Smith knows he’ll be writing a draft of hockey history covering this unique event, and wants to provide as much of an inside look as possible.
“To be able to live it and experience it is going to be something we look back on and enjoy,” Smith said. “Hopefully it’s a good experience, and hopefully it ends in a Stanley Cup. That would make it all worth it, for sure.”
As has been the theme for the sports world, and, really the entire world, during the COVID-19 pandemic, no one knows what lies ahead. This will be a trip unlike any other.
Smith is used to knowing when he’ll leave Raleigh on a trip, and when he’ll return. This time, that departure date is all he’ll have going into it. He said the unknowns and unprecedented nature are what make this trip so unique, but that should also make for unique stories to tell.
Smith also knows that not everything may go as expected inside the bubble, and he and the other members of the traveling party still don’t know every detail.
“I have some questions about this whole thing,” Smith said. “And we might just find out when we get there. A lot of this stuff, since we’ve never been through something like this before, I think a lot of it is going to be feeling it out and some things might just happen on the fly.”
If there’s one thing that anyone who works in sports, especially as media, is used to, it’s things happening on the fly.
While Smith might not have his entire packing list ironed out yet, he knows that same sense of adaptability and flexibility may be the most important thing to bring to the bubble.
“Working in sports, whether you’re working for a team or working in media, you have to be adaptable, really, to anything that can happen, but in this situation, I think you have to be even more flexible because there’s so many things that can change at any given time given what’s happening,” Smith said. “Like Rod Brind’Amour was saying the other day, the team itself, they have to be adaptable because they’ve never been through a training camp like this before. So I think that’s true for everyone involved in every step of this process, is just adapting to whatever you’re presented with.”