Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt soaked up the sun as he prepared for his next turn in the cornhole tournament, watching his teammates relax during an August afternoon barbecue. It was a backyard barbecue, minus the backyard, taking place on a hotel roof deck in Edmonton.
"We're trying to emulate Vegas as much as possible in the bubble," he said with a laugh.
One of the greatest challenges in the NHL's restarted season -- in which 24 teams were placed in the Toronto and Edmonton hubs -- has been finding relaxation and mental solace under unprecedented conditions. The players have spent weeks away from their families and friends. Their access has been restricted to within hotels and facilities inside the "bubbles." The specter of COVID-19 hangs over the tournament; although there hasn't been a single positive test during the restart, the testing and social distancing routines are still a daily grind.
"I give the league credit: They made us all feel safe and secure here," said Dallas Stars coach Rick Bowness. "That being said, it's not like we're walking out to a park. We're going to a courtyard, and there are three other teams sitting there. You go to the gym, and you're working out with the people you're playing against that night. Everyone deserves a lot of credit for making the best of it. People think living in a bubble is great. [But] it's tough. It's mentally tough."
Different teams have handled this stress in different ways.
The Vegas Golden Knights formed a committee.
"It was actually called the 'Recreation Committee,'" said Vegas coach Peter DeBoer. "Then they decided to call themselves the 'Fun Committee.'"
Schmidt, along with defenseman Nick Holden and forward Ryan Reaves, were identified by teammates as the board members of the Fun Committee. Forward Jonathan Marchessault said Schmidt was "pretty much the president" of that committee, adding that "he comes up with ideas" for team bonding, such as the rooftop barbecue.
"What they've been doing is coordinating different things for the boys. To have a feeling of getting away from the bubble, even though we're still in the bubble. To bond as a group. It shifts our mindset away from the hockey and onto coming together as a team," said defenseman Zach Whitecloud. "It lets us focus on something other than hockey. Gives us that mental break. That fun group allows us to have fun, joke around, relax. Allows us to get refreshed."
Here's how the process works: The Fun Committee comes up with an idea for bubble fun. They take it to Rick Braunstein, the Golden Knights' director of team services, who is typically the point person for road trip accommodations. He takes it to the NHL, and then the fun begins -- provided the NHL can make it happen.
Braunstein helps plan team bonding events on a normal road trip for the Knights. But with up to two months in the bubble, this was anything but normal.
"The difference is that we're in one place for a long period of time. If you're switching cities, you might have two or three days in a city. You might go out in smaller groups and do little things," said Whitecloud. "Since we're here for an extended period of time, we know certain resources are going to be here, and so the Fun Committee has a chance to plan things two, three, four, five days ahead of time. And give the boys a chance to relax as a group."
The Fun Committee was responsible for a poker tournament, which defenseman Deryk Engelland won. There were pingpong tournaments and "Call of Duty" parties. The Golden Knights also continued a tradition from previous postseasons: "Mario Kart."
"We've done a 'Mario Kart' tournament. I was out real early. I'm not very good," said center Nick Cousins. "You know who's really good? Ryan Reaves. You can't tell him I said that because it'll go right to his head. He was my partner and he carried us for a little bit. He was Donkey Kong and he was lights-out. Winning every time. I was losing every time. So we kind of met in the middle and made it really far."
Cousins posted an image of one of the Fun Committee's greatest achievements: a team movie night early in the tournament in which the Knights watched the 2008 Will Ferrell sports comedy "Semi-Pro," which the 23-year-old Whitecloud called "a classic, old movie."
Team movie night in the bubble pic.twitter.com/JTt2dumFqs— Nick Cousins (@Cous27) August 13, 2020
It looked like a sleepover: Pillows placed around the room, couches moved around the big screen. There was even a faux campfire.
"We have popcorn, we have the salt and vinegar seasoning and ketchup and cheddar and all of that stuff, and the hotel does a great job to set up all of the couches in line like a movie theater. It's cool stuff," said Marchessault.
There have also been excursions. The Knights have visited Commonwealth Stadium, the home of Edmonton's CFL team, a couple of times for outdoor fun. "We played kickball, we played for like an hour and a half, 13 against 13 -- trainers were involved, everyone was involved -- and it was honestly one of the best times that we had in the bubble for sure," said Marchessault.
They had a golf field trip days after they eliminated Chicago, to the ironically named Blackhawk Golf Club in Edmonton. The Knights recently went to a multipurpose facility called the Rec Room. There was bowling, ax throwing, virtual reality laser tag, pool, table tennis, an array of video games and a full restaurant and bar.
Who excelled in the games at the Rec Room?
"Nate Schmidt's good at all the virtual [reality] stuff. Well, Nate's good at everything," said forward Mark Stone.
"Whitey's a heck of a bowler," said defenseman Brayden McNabb of Whitecloud.
"Yeah, Whitey's a good bowler," confirmed Stone. "I don't know if anybody's really a great bowler or a great ax thrower, you know? We're just looking to have some fun."
Which is why one has a Fun Committee.
"I think you get cabin fever a little bit. It's tough. It's not a lot of sunlight. Not a lot of grass you get to see," said forward Reilly Smith. "But our team and our organization have done a good job trying to make the most of the experience. They've given us every opportunity to get our mind away from the game and from the bubble, too. So we're fortunate about that. I'm sure other teams haven't had the same experience."
In many ways, the Vegas experience in the Edmonton bubble is unique. The Knights had one game between their arrival in late July and their second round-robin game on Aug. 6. They had a five-day gap between the end of their quarterfinal series against Chicago and the start of the semifinals against Vancouver. They needed some fun to fill in those gaps.
But as the postseason reaches its final stages, the Fun Committee's work is practically done. The schedule has settled into an every-other-day grind, just like they'd have in a traditional postseason. The Golden Knights are facing the Stars for the chance to play for the Stanley Cup for the second time in their franchise's three-year existence.
Vegas has handled the bubble better than most, balancing relaxation and bonding time with preparation and ice time. Smith said he didn't know whether he could "draw a parallel" between the Golden Knights' bubble fun and their success on the ice in the tournament.
But DeBoer said the team has been aware of how important managing the players' stress level was going to be inside the bubble. Rather than bring along a sports psychologist, the coaches left it to the players to plot that course.
"We've decided to be aware of that internally. We've had a plan since Day 1 of making sure to stay active, and have different outings and different events going on. I think our leadership group has done an exceptional job of keeping things fresh," he said.
Fresh, and fun.