Before he and the Hurricanes left for the NHL’s bubble in late July, Hurricanes.com senior editor Michael Smith was kind enough to sit down with Canes Country to discuss his preparations and expectations for bubble life. Now that Smith and the team have been back for over a month, he’s had time to reflect on his experiences with what all involved hope is a once-in-a-lifetime-situation.
Smith was kind enough to speak with us again and offer a full break down his experience in the bubble, join us as he takes you through the strangest in-person Stanley Cup Playoffs experience we’re likely to ever see.
Though there were daily COVID tests, health screenings and temperature checks for everyone in the bubble, Smith said protocols were more stringent for the first five days with teams coming in from different cities on July 26.
The teams had assigned restaurants, times to be outside at BMO Field, etc. But, once that time period passed, with all of the health and safety protocols in place, restrictions started to relax a bit.
“Honestly once the hockey started, it felt normal. It felt like a normal road trip except that we just never left,” Smith said.
Settling into a rhythm, protocols
While life in the bubble was not something anyone had ever experienced, and likely never will again, Smith said that it didn’t take long for him to establish a routine.
The daily protocols helped with that; each day every person from each team was COVID tested at a set time (though not the same time every day) with a concert hall setup. Smith said the tests were non-invasive nasal swabs, and personnel were only notified if they tested positive (which no one did in the Toronto bubble, nor have they in the Edmonton bubble so far).
Everyone was also required to get a daily temperature check and fill out a health questionnaire on a smartphone app, which was also scanned at the temperature machine. Everyone’s badge also had a barcode on the back that was scanned every day to keep track of everything.
So, despite being in an unusual situation, that daily rhythm of getting up, getting tested, getting his temperature taken, filling out the health questionnaire, going out to the Tim Hortons truck for coffee and maybe a donut and doing whatever work each day presented, helped things start to feel normal for Smith.
“It was all very set up, almost like a regimented schedule,” Smith said. “After a few days, once you acclimate yourself to the fact that this is where you are, this what you’re doing, it felt very normal.”
A unique game experience and coverage
Of course, there was another thing to help everything feel normal: hockey. Obviously, there’s nothing normal about playing playoff hockey in July and August, or in an environment like the bubble.
But for Smith, getting back to doing his job of covering the team, providing updates and breaking down games helped restore a sense of normalcy to his life.
“After however many months it had been, five months without hockey, without doing what we actually are supposed to do, to be able to do that again, to watch hockey practice, to report on whatever’s happening, to watch hockey games, felt normal,” Smith said. “And I think you can ask anybody in the bubble, whether it’s the coaching staff or the players, even though it was totally different than it ever has been or probably ever will be, once the puck dropped, it was all normal.”
For game coverage, other than being able to watch in real time, Smith had the same access as those covering from home, with player and coach interviews on Zoom.
That’s likely to remain at least the temporary “new normal” until there’s a COVID vaccine, and is something Smith, and all sports reporters, are adjusting to. Smith called being able to go into the locker room and chat with players one of the biggest things the bubble experience taught him we’ve all taken for granted.
“I think we can all agree that as media people, we all probably miss that, because that’s where the best stories come from,” Smith said. “You don’t get any ground-breaking, great stories from just talking to someone on Zoom with 20 other people. Just the daily routine of going into the locker room and having casual chats and seeing what comes of them is probably something that I miss and that changes the way we do our jobs. There’s just certain things we can’t do now.”
However, being in the bubble provided Smith with an opportunity for plenty of unique content. His goal was to take fans behind the scenes and give them an inside look at the bubble experience as much as possible.
He broke down what the team did to pass the time during its lengthy delay of game one against the Boston Bruins as Tampa Bay Columbus went to quintuple overtime (that eventually pushed that game to the next day).
During the team’s exhibition game against the Washington Capitals, Smith spent the entire game in the coaches’ office to give fans a behind-the-curtain look, something he probably couldn’t have done under typical circumstances.
“Really our goal was to capture some of these unique, behind-the-scenes moments, that otherwise you wouldn’t be able to see and you wouldn’t be able to read about,” Smith said. “That was our ultimate goal and I’m pleased with what we were able to accomplish in the three and a half weeks we were there.”
And, of course, there were plenty of unique experiences about the games to document. After all, we’re talking about playoff hockey at a neutral site with no fans.
As Smith pointed out, the NHL knew hockey in the bubble would be a made for TV event, and, when watching the games on television, you really don’t notice that there’s no fans.
Smith said that’s definitely different viewing the games in-person, but all of the on-ice intensity of postseason competition still shines through.
“When you’re there and you’re watching it, it is kind of weird when somebody scores, and there’s a goal horn going off and you can hear players cheering,” Smith said. “You have the [artificial] crowd noise, but you still have that disconnect of ‘OK, this isn’t truly like the experience that we’re used to having. But, once you do get past that, and it took me a game to get past that, and maybe not even a game, maybe a period or two, once you can get past that and just tune everything out from beyond the glass, it felt like playoff hockey.”
While the bubble atmosphere (or lack thereof) provided for some humorous moments, such as being able to hear chirps and the players’ “spicy language” coming from the ice, it also provided for some downright surreal ones.
Smith was in the arena when Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Muzzin suffered a serious injury and had to be stretchered off during game two of the Leafs’ qualifying round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and was struck by the deafening silence of the moment.
“If you imagine in a normal arena, you’d at least have the crowd murmur, maybe there would be some light music playing, maybe not,” Smith said. “But it was just dead silent. So something like that, that was super eerie, watching them tend to him, get him onto the stretcher and everything, and it’s just dead silent for 10 minutes in this arena, that was eerie.”
The weirdest thing
As we’ve established, the bubble was filled with strange, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
The strangest part for Smith? The setting, including using the Raptors and Maple Leafs’ dressing rooms, and how absurd it all would have seemed just a short time ago.
“If you would have told me in March, ‘Hey, the Hurricanes are going to be in the playoffs. They’re going to be in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ home dressing room,’ I would have been like ‘Wait, what are you talking about? That’s crazy,’” Smith said. “So just that whole surreal nature of it all was probably the weirdest thing.”
An adult summer camp
Where there was certainly a lot of work to be done in the bubble, there was plenty of time for fun as well. Smith likened the experience to “an adult summer camp”, with teams at the Fairmont Royal York each having their own floor (the Hurricanes were on the eighth floor). Smith said he could hear players “scurrying back and forth” to the players’ lounge.
The team spent a good deal of time at the Toronto bubble’s other hotel, Hotel X, which had amenities including basketball courts, indoor tennis courts, ping pong, pickleball, courts, a rooftop pool and a squash court (Smith said he played quite a bit of squash).
There was also plenty of time for outdoor activities at BMO Field, where the Hurricanes held a field day between the qualifying round and first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Smith said one of the best parts of the bubble was the level of closeness between the members of the teams’ traveling party, who he spent most of his time with, mainly videographer Zack Brame, Vice President of Communications and Team Services Mike Sundheim Manager of Communications and Team Services Pace Sagester.
“You look back nine months ago in January, when the team was on the road, everyone would be doing their own things,” Smith said. “Some people would go to restaurants here, restaurants there, whatever. But options were so limited and you couldn’t leave the fenced bubble, that you kind of had to just spend time with each other. And that was a lot of fun. It was really good to do that.”
Smith said that sharing the experience with those with him was one of his favorite parts of being in the bubble.
“It was probably just the camaraderie of everything,” Smith said. “We were all in it together. All we had were each other to get through each day. There was a lot of time to just kind of hang out and spend time with people that we hadn’t been able to hang out and spend time with since months prior to the pandemic. And we were able to do it comfortably.”
Part of that experience was being able to do “normal” things from what felt like a past life before March in the safety of the bubble. While there were still masks everywhere, the safety of the daily testing and protocols allowed those in the bubble to do things like go to a restaurant and feel comfortable, work out in a gym, etc.
Things that already feel alien to our daily lives after a few months.
“Being able to get back to some of these things that we probably took for granted many months ago and being able to experience them with good people too, was a blast,” Smith said.
A safe environment
The bubbles have, of course, been a rousing success in terms of keeping everyone safe. While sacrifices were required, they proved worthwhile. As of Monday, there still had yet to be a positive test in either bubble.
NHL statement on COVID-19 testing results: pic.twitter.com/9MB2VdwmBO— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) September 21, 2020
Smith said everything felt very safe in Toronto, and thinks it was a good decision on the league’s part to move its bubbles to Canada where the coronavirus case loads were not nearly as large.
“I think the league deserves a lot of credit for what they did and how they kept us all safe,” Smith said. “There were masks everywhere and you had to wear your mask everywhere even though everyone was getting tested. There was hand sanitizer everywhere. Everything’s routinely getting sanitized. There was a pretty strict schedule for when they’d come clean your room. It was every three days. So they did everything in their power to make sure it went off without a hitch and they did a great job.”
What hasn’t been mentioned as much, however, and also played a huge role, is the job the teams did in getting through the NHL’s phase 3 training camps healthy.
“I was probably more skeptical of phase 3, because there wasn’t that bubble environment,” Smith said. “But I think then, you look at each individual team, and the Hurricanes, and Doug Bennett who led the charge there deserves a lot of credit for making sure that players and staff exercised caution when they left the rink, that they didn’t put themselves at risk and they didn’t put the team at risk. Phase 3 was where it could have all fallen apart, but the Hurricanes, and it seems, every other team around the league, took it very seriously to where you could get to the bubble, where the league proved that sports can work and exist safely inside a bubble like that.”
A part of history
There’s no doubt 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic, will be a huge chapter in world history moving forward.
So too will the way the sports world adapted. There will likely be retrospectives, books, documentaries, feature films, etc about the NHL’s 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs bubble in the years to come. And Smith got a front-row seat, and chance to write a first draft of history.
When the league’s return to play plan was first announced, Smith didn’t think he’d get to go, and he’d be watching on TV with everyone else. But when it turned out he’d have the opportunity, he jumped at it.
“Even though it took sacrifice of being away from home for an undetermined amount of time, I wanted to be able to experience it and document it,” Smith said. “I wanted to be a part of something that is so unique, is special. The people that I experienced it with, we have that shared experience together. To me, that’s one of the most memorable things about it.
“Yes, the team didn’t win the cup, didn’t bring home any hardware or anything like that, but we still went and lived something unique for three and a half weeks. To be able to do that, to have the opportunity to do that in the first place, is extremely special. So it’s an experience I’m never going to forget.”