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EDMONTON — The Winnipeg Jets are playing Cornhole. The Carolina Hurricanes chose Catan. The Washington Capitals are holding push-up competitions. The New York Rangers are competing in virtual golf. The Chicago Blackhawks are blasting ping pong balls past each other. And the Pittsburgh Penguins are draining jump shots on the basketball court.
These guys know they’re here for hockey, right? All joking aside, there’s no question the bubble environments created inside Edmonton and Toronto hotels have added to the unique feel of these Stanley Cup playoffs.
"I think seeing the other teams in the elevator, lobby, stuff like that, I think minus the mini-sticks it definitely feels like minor hockey tournaments," Jets defenceman Dylan DeMelo told me Tuesday during a Zoom call.
It’s only going to get more surreal later this week as players emerge from strict team-related isolation — they can only be around each other the first five days under COVID-19 protocols — and begin crossing paths with the enemy off the ice on a more frequent basis.
The Jets, for example, have one floor of the Sutton Place Hotel in downtown Edmonton to themselves, along with a specialized meeting and dining area. The Calgary Flames, their opponent in the best-of-five qualifying series, also have their own floor. But as of Friday, there’s no rules in place preventing members of the two clubs from mingling in any number of common areas set up inside the secure zone, including restaurants, lounges and leisure areas.
After Game 1 on Saturday night, how awkward might Sunday morning brunch be? Jets coach Paul Maurice joked that kind of set-up would have led to a brawl in the lobby a few decades ago. But now?
"We’re adults here and I think we can figure that out for ourselves. I don’t think there’s gonna be too much inter-mixing," said Jets forward Andrew Copp. "Maybe you’re outside with a group and you see one of your buddies and you sit and talk to him for a bit. But I don’t think there’s gonna be any going to dinner or anything like that with guys from other teams too much. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s my approach."
Serial agitator Matthew Tkachuk, who single-handedly threw gasoline all over the Battle of Alberta this past season, seems like the kind of guy who would be most likely to spark a brouhaha. But the Flames’ super-pest poured cold water over the idea this week, saying he’s going to be all-business.
"We’re here for a reason. We didn’t come here for a vacation. We plan on being here a long time, so we’d better get used to it," he said.
OK, but you might still want to have hotel security keep an extra eye on him, the way they used to when me and my teammates on the Gateway Flyers would travel to hockey havens such as Warroad, Kenora and Grand Forks for youth tournaments during the 1980s and run wild in the hallways, fuelled by far too much Orange Crush and Fuzzy Peaches.
I can’t tell you a thing about whether we won or lost, but I can certainly recall the good times that were had away from the rink, when bonds were formed and friendships were made. Teams like the Jets appear to be taking a similar approach.
"It’s definitely a little different, a little weird, but you have some fun with it. We’re doing things as a team, we’ve got some things set up for us, some basketball, some Cornhole, we’ve got some cards and some board games that we’re going to try to play probably every night and have some fun together and just enjoy the experience," said DeMelo.
"Obviously we’re in this together, we’re away from family and away from friends, so we’re all one big family here so just try to enjoy it."
There are other unusual aspects to this, including the fact the Oilers and Maple Leafs have no distinct home-ice advantage to playing in their familiar barn. Consider this: In Game 3 of their qualifying series with Chicago, the Blackhawks will be the designated "home team" and be housed inside Edmonton’s lavish dressing room, while the Oilers are banished to the smaller visiting quarters.
At least in their case, Edmonton (JW Marriott) and Chicago (Sutton Place) are in two different hotels, so they would have to wait until they hit the ice to settle any scores should Jonathan Toews decide to leave a smelly sock behind in Connor McDavid’s stall. But other teams are in similar situations as the Jets and Flames of being under the same roof, including Minnesota/Vancouver in Edmonton, and New York Islanders/Florida, New York Rangers/Carolina and Toronto/Columbus in Toronto.
For the record, the NHL isn’t expecting any bubble trouble.
"We’re finding from our players, this is the Stanley Cup Playoffs and they are competing for the Stanley Cup, and it’s their interest to be separated," said Steve Mayer, the league’s chief content officer who helped put together the Edmonton hub. "For the first five days we’ve put a very, very stringent tone for the fact that they have to be separated. But we really have felt that the players’ feedback is their interest to be separated throughout, and we’ll see how that evolves as the tournament moves on."
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff told me he’s amazed by what the league has been able to pull off in short order, including no positive COVID-19 tests over the past week. That’s a sharp contrast from the current mess in MLB, which has no secure, hub city setup and is now paying for it dearly.
"It’s nothing short of remarkable," said Cheveldayoff. "You get here and you see all those plans that were put into place that were just on paper that obviously hours and hours and hours were spent on doing, and you see it run as smoothly as it has just from a logistics standpoint, it’s amazing. My hat goes off to the people that did a lot of the heavy lifting on the planning side of it."
Let the quest for the Cup begin... and last one in the pool is a rotten egg!
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.
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