For nearly two months, the National Hockey League has kept the teams in its postseason tournament inside "bubbles" that it helped construct with the NHL Players' Association in an effort to safely finish the 2019-20 season after it was paused because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Initially there were two: The 12 teams from the Eastern Conference were housed in Toronto, with two hotels in proximity to Scotiabank Arena, and the 12 teams from the Western Conference were in Edmonton, Alberta, with two hotels near Rogers Place. For the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final, all teams were in Edmonton.
Aside from the brief glimpses we see on "Quest for the Cup," life for the players inside these bubbles has been a mystery. We know they're tested for COVID-19 each day, and through eight weeks and 32,374 tests, there has yet to be a confirmed positive case. We know there are some amenities for them to use away from the rink. But with no independent media in the bubble -- and with candid comments about the emotional strain of this experiment far too infrequent -- many of us don't have a sense of how players have handled this unprecedented experience -- until now, that is.
"We love playing this sport, and I don't think there is one guy who wasn't appreciative for the chance to win the Cup this summer," one Western Conference player said. "But also, I don't think a lot of fans realize what an emotional toll the bubble took on some guys -- the isolation, the grind, being away from our families and loved ones during a really stressful time to begin with. To be honest, after the first few days, I noticed a lot of guys were more down than they usually are. Some guys were legitimately sad. It's not easy living like that for two months."
ESPN debriefed with nine players -- five from the Western Conference and four from the Eastern Conference -- who, on the condition of anonymity, answered dozens of questions about what life was really like inside the bubble, from playing in empty buildings to being trapped in hotels to food, drinking and drugs.
It's the NHL bubble confidential.
'I almost felt too secure' | 'Not as advertised'
'Please let me know if you talk to anyone who went fly fishing'
Sex and drugs | 'I ate a lot of room service' | Proximity to the enemy
The game experience | A bubble for next season too?
'I almost felt too secure'
There's one thing players unequivocally say about their experience in the bubble: They felt safe.
"Security was very tight," one Western Conference player said. "For all the guys that were questioning how safe it would be, that quickly went away. It was one of the safest places you could be. They were constantly checking your credentials, constantly checking our Clear App, constant security. In that sense, they did a really good job."
One Eastern Conference player said the testing made him feel "at ease," which was reinforced by "mask police everywhere" inside the bubble.
Another Eastern Conference veteran said mask culture, which was prevalent, was about "internal respect" as well as "optics."
"When you're at the rink, they're taking pictures of you walking in and walking around. If you're walking around with no mask on, that's not sending the right vibe," the player said. "Yeah, it was annoying. But we're still representing kids that are watching it. All a kid has to say is, 'Hey, Auston Matthews isn't wearing a mask to the rink, so I don't have to.'"
The uniform praise of the bubbles' safety seems warranted, given the results for the NHL and the NHLPA. "I mean, there are zero cases, and that is so impressive, considering everything going on and all the moving parts," an Eastern Conference veteran said. "You can complain about everything else, but the NHL should be really proud of themselves for that last part."
That sense of safety did come with a cost in the eyes of a few players. One Western Conference player recalled arriving in the Edmonton bubble and immediately feeling claustrophobic.
"The fence that boxed us in, that made you feel like you were in more of a prison, kind of like an animal," he said. "Just the feeling of it. There's no other way to separate you from the outside world in a safe way, but it was an eye-opener when guys pulled up to the hotel."
An Eastern Conference veteran called it "a safe zone, totally separate from the outside world" in Toronto. "I almost felt too secure. With the fences they put up, there was no way anyone was getting in or out," he said.
In other words, the pre-bubble speculation regarding "prison breaks" by players seeking some fun outside the bubble were greatly exaggerated.
The fact that Gary Bettman is going to award the Cup to Dallas or Tampa Bay by the end of the month is chalked up as a win.
"If the goal was to finish the season and award the Stanley Cup -- which it was -- then yes, it was a success in that sense," a Western Conference veteran said. "Accommodations and fun? Not even close. But again, that wasn't the goal of the whole thing."
'Not as advertised'
Many players thought the NHL exaggerated about the comforts of life in the bubble -- "frankly, to get us all to agree to come out," an Eastern Conference player said. As one Western Conference player put it: "I would quote it as 'not as advertised.'"
"Once you got into the pattern of playing every other day, the amenities were less important," another Western Conference player said. "But they oversold what was delivered."
The NHL sold the bubble to the players with what amounted to a vacation packet you'd get from a resort, full of pictures and maps.
"The things promised and actually delivered [on] are hilarious if you look at it," said one Eastern Conference veteran who was a member of the return-to-play/CBA committee. "They gave us a proposal for Toronto, which was this booklet that I circulated among my teammates. I was like, 'Whoa, this is going to be actually nice.' They had food trucks, restaurants, shops out in the middle of the street for us to go shopping. When we got there, the guys were like, 'Where are the shops? Where are the outdoor team lounges?' Yeah, none of that."
A Western Conference veteran was dazzled by "all these restaurants to eat at, all these food trucks, all these excursions, families were going to be there." But after weeks in the bubble, "it just felt, to a lot of players, that they made all these promises to get us there and didn't really want to follow through with them and made it as hard as they possibly could to do these things. It's just annoying, that's what it is."
This led to gossip among the players in the bubble that some teams were getting benefits that others weren't. One Eastern Conference veteran said there was jealousy about which teams had access to roof decks and which teams had the better spreads of food. "Some teams like Florida really didn't have much in the way of this or that [in the bubble]. But Montreal, in their little practice area, had wraps and smoothies and everything, ready to rock and roll. That's a team that's got deep pockets," he said.
In Toronto, players were generally happy with the setup, especially those staying at Hotel X, where there were plenty of perks, including a rooftop pool. BMO Field, where Toronto FC plays, was included in the bubble, and players could go there to kick around a ball, grab lunch or catch a hockey game on a big screen.
In Edmonton, logistics weren't as ideal.
"There were times I didn't go outside for four, five days," said a Western Conference player who spent weeks in the bubble. "Some teams had meeting rooms with balconies, and those guys could go out there and get some sun. Other teams' rooms were in the middle of the hotel. So there's no windows, no light. You're always in your room. And unless you go out to the prison yard -- which is in a 'courtyard,' but it was an oval concrete slab with a freaking Tim Horton's truck in it and fencing around it -- you don't get any fresh air at all."
Many players noted that they got irrationally excited to go on bus rides to the practice rinks. "Just to be able to look out the window and see the city, some sky, actual civilization," one Western Conference player said. "I got amped up for a bus ride. How sad is that?"
In Edmonton, though the JW Marriott was nicer -- and housed the higher seeds -- the fact that it was connected to the arena via a tunnel was not ideal.
"When we switched hotels from Sutton Place to the JW, it was crazy that you might not see the sun at all," a Western Conference player said. "You walk inside from your meal room right into the rink. Then you get to the end of your second day, and it was like, 'I haven't been outside, seen the sun or breathed fresh air in 48 hours.'"
The bait and switch: 'Please let me know if you talk to anyone who went fly fishing'
Golf excursions were a big selling point during planning for the bubble. However, very few teams were able to take advantage. The Tampa Bay Lightning, for example, had one golf outing during their two-month stay.
"Even playing golf was a hassle," one Western Conference player said. "You have to set up a golf time. It has to be an exact time, but it has to be everybody or nobody. Realistically, what team is going to set up a full-team golf outing between Games 3 and 4 in the second round?"
It wasn't just the lack of golf trips that irked players. "They promised us excursions: 'Oh, we're going to have fly fishing and golf, a golf course just for us -- you can go whenever you want -- and a field,'" a Western Conference player said. "We went to the field one time. It was a fight to even golf once. And please let me know if you talk to anyone who went fly fishing."
In fact, fly fishing became a punchline.
"In the little brochure they sent, there was a picture of a man fly fishing in the mountains, and one of the guys was like, 'Where did they get this picture of the mountains? The mountains are three hours away,'" a Western Conference player said.
One of the biggest "moving the goalposts" gripes from the players was about the matter of families joining the bubble. The NHLPA and NHL agreed that families could join by the conference finals but later said they couldn't get government exemptions, which prevented any non-Canadian families not living in Canada from coming to the bubble without doing a 14-day quarantine.
"I think they just didn't want to risk the bubble being broken by a random person being brought in and risking it," one veteran player said. "But it felt like they promised that and then pulled it away."
"Even if they did get the government sign-off, they were making it so difficult for everyone," a Western Conference player said. "Let's say a family has two kids, 2 and 4, and you're going to make them sit in a hotel room for four days and only have room service? And on top of that, you need to either drive to Edmonton or fly private for, like, $50,000? It was very unrealistic. There were other ways they could have done it. They could have taken control over the situation, but frankly, they didn't because they didn't want the families there."
The NHL's approach to families in the bubble was in stark contrast to that of the NBA in its Orlando, Florida, bubble.
"I saw the NBA had school provided for players' kids, and I was like, 'Are you kidding me? Why didn't someone think of this?'" one player said. "We should have offered that too."
One player earning less than $1 million said he couldn't afford for his girlfriend to fly private, which would have lessened her quarantine restrictions, so she was planning to fly to Montana and drive the seven and a half hours to the border. Another player became frustrated when, weeks into his stay in the bubble, he was given a questionnaire asking how many of his family members were planning to attend. "And we were like, 'I thought this was all figured out already. What do you mean we have limited available rooms?'" the veteran Eastern Conference player said. "You told us families are allowed to come. I don't know why you're asking only now for all this information. That should have been done a long time ago so people could make plans."
One Western Conference player said there were a lot of phone calls made to the NHLPA in an effort to figure out what was happening, "but answers were really hard to come by."
Ultimately, the players thought transparency was at the root of the issue.
"I just wish they communicated better," an Eastern Conference player said. "In light of everything, that's all we ask for: the proper information. We're coming here. We all know full well it's not what we're used to. Just tell us and tell us why. But I think a lot of times we were left in the dark, and it gets frustrating for a lot of guys."
Sex and drugs
As for recreational activities? "It wasn't a bubble spring break, if that's what anyone is implying," a Western Conference veteran said.
Players had access to a concierge service in the lobby, and they could order beer and wine and have it delivered to the team rec rooms. Hotel X in Toronto featured SkyBar, which is where players from several teams converged on a nightly basis.
"I'm not kidding you when I say that at least 10-15 guys from every team were up there," one Eastern Conference player said. "If a team was playing the next day, you didn't see any of those guys at the SkyBar. It would be teams playing the following day or after their games. It wasn't just the fourth-line guys or just the top-end players. The stars, the young guys, everybody was there."
Social media might have warped perceptions of partying in the bubble. A few photos of Washington Capitals players drinking outdoors fueled speculation that they were "having pool parties and turning it into a vacation" before they were eliminated in the first round, according to one report. But an Eastern Conference player said every team took it easy now and again.
"I think there were some misconceptions because some of the younger guys from teams were advertising it on their Instagrams," he said. "If any team has two days off in between games, I don't care who you are, that team is going to get together -- especially because, as players, you haven't been around each other for three months. Are you going to tell a 34-year-old guy that he can't have some drinks after the game or go lie by the pool?"
Added a Western Conference player: "The farther you went in the playoffs, the more serious it got. During training camp and play-in games, there was more drinking. Things definitely toned down as we went along."
On the drug front, the items of choice were cannabis gummies. "The only thing that you really saw advertised was guys that were into their gummies or edibles. And that was usually just used in their rooms," one Eastern Conference player said.
As with drinking, things seemed to be in moderation in the bubble. "Weed gummies were there, drinking was there, but I think when it came down to it, people were trying to perform the best they can," a Western Conference veteran said. "I don't think guys were drinking to party -- certainly not in excess. When guys were taking weed gummies, it wasn't a 'Let's get high as s--- and do nothing all day.' It was more of a recovery sense or to fall asleep after a game. Instead of falling asleep at 4 or 5 a.m., guys could fall asleep at 1 a.m. so they could get seven hours of sleep."
One thing that was very much not in excess in the bubble, if it existed at all: sex.
"There was some chatter before it started about guys trying to leave the bubble or sneaking girls in. There was none of that going on. Guys were pretty mature. Ultimately, you didn't want to be the guy that f---s this up, to be the one that ends up getting everyone COVID," one Eastern Conference veteran said. "Everybody is getting tested every day. So I think guys were almost too scared that something might happen, and then they get caught. Everyone knew what floors every team was on. If someone was going to a certain floor, it was pretty easy to figure out what team they were associating themselves with."
The player said "there wasn't much room for shenanigans" and cited the now-infamous story of the Seattle Seahawks player who tried to sneak a girl through quarantine protocols by dressing her as a player. "I don't think hockey players are going to have that happen," he said.
'I ate a lot of room service'
When it comes to food in the bubble, the consensus among players we talked to was this: Although the options were limited, the quality was good. "I thought food was going to be an issue going into it," a Western Conference player said. "But I felt like the hotel chefs did a really good job working out menus."
Many players pointed out that the pre-planning brochures overpromised again. "The original pitch showed there was going to be 12 to 15 dining options," one Western Conference player said. "In reality, there were maybe five or six realistic ones. That's a pretty big difference. I ate a lot of room service. The room service quality was decent, but the options seemed limited."
Added an Eastern Conference veteran: "It wasn't that the food was bad. It was just the same meals over and over and over. I know we're creatures of habit, but at some point, I just couldn't do it anymore. Like, they were told hockey players like steak, but at one point, I was like, 'Holy s---, this might be my fifth steak this week.' That's insane. I don't do that ever."
The monotony left some players ordering out for meals, which were delivered to the shared common area for pickup. "I think it would have helped it just be a healthier environment too. Some guys, their eating habits went down because they were getting Uber Eats all the time, and who knows what they were actually ordering," an Eastern Conference player said.
Throughout the tournament, many players observed that it wasn't an even playing field for teams as far as amenities were concerned. "I think some other teams had different setups, and I'd be a little disappointed in [team redacted] if that's the case because that should have been thought of," one Eastern Conference veteran said. "If there was a place for us to always have meals available, a majority of the guys would have taken advantage of it, just to be around each other. It's not going to kill you."
Players took notice of this culinary imbalance between teams.
"Some teams have owners that are in the restaurant or hotel business. ... This was just a chance to make a couple bucks back," an Eastern Conference player said. "But when you're feeding 30 to 50 6-foot-plus monsters and you've got 50 hotel rooms, it wasn't a cheap restart, right? But it was also a situation where you're like, 'I can't believe Philly got this. We should have that.'"
One player griped that not all meals were taken care of, and per diem was not offered.
"I don't mind getting the odd meal, but they should have provided an area where you were provided a meal no matter what," an Eastern Conference veteran said. "As much as I know we're getting paid, it's expensive, especially in Canada. It really added up for a lot of guys. I'm in a different place than a lot of our players, but for our younger guys that are just starting out in their careers, that can get away from you quickly."
The NHLPA's Jonathan Weatherdon disputes this: "On July 30th, the NHLPA and the NHL agreed to an enhanced per diem of $130 USD per day, with no deductions for club-provided meals. For the first five days prior to that, it was $55 for game days and $111 for non-game days in the bubble."
One last shock for players: hotel bills at checkout.
"Guys checked out, and their room service bills were in the thousands. Thousands," an Eastern Conference player said. "It was just ridiculous. It's like you go to a resort and you swipe this card, and then you see your bill at the end and you're like, 'What the f---?' Some guys were really burned by that. So that was something I wish the NHL or teams would have thought of more. I wish meals would have been available."
Proximity to the enemy
Although the NHL can feel small and friendly, the dynamics shifted with everyone jammed in one enclosed space. With one restaurant, one gym and plenty of shared elevator time, there were some awkward interactions.
"If something happened in a game and you see the guy in the hotel, you're like, 'F--- off, buddy,'" an Eastern Conference veteran said. "Now, you're not going to say anything in the elevator, but you both know. But whether you were a fourth-line plug or you're running the power play, you were there trying to play hockey and finish this. You were trying to make it as legitimate as you could. So while there was [tension], there was also a sense of, 'Hey, guys, let's make the best of it.'"
Added an Eastern Conference player: "It was hard because during a playoff series, I want to rip these guy's f---ing heads off on the ice. I don't want to have to mingle with them the next day. So that created some interesting moments. Lots of averted eye contact, to be honest."
In fact, of all the unprecedented weirdness of bubble life, one Eastern Conference veteran said that the awkward cohabitation with rival teams in the same hotel was by far the weirdest part.
"The weird thing was just seeing guys on other teams. Even if they had a couple of hotels where they limited it, it was just weird. Even if you saw a buddy on another team that you're friends with, it's like, 'Do I say hi to him? Do I not say hi to him?'" he said. "And sometimes you'd be eating, and, like, the coaches from the other team are one table over from you having a meal. It's just too weird, you know? That might be different in other sports, but it's weird for hockey."
The game experience
On television, the NHL restart has been aesthetically effective. Large tarps cover seats where fans normally sit. Artificial crowd noise frequently tricks viewers into thinking it's a playoff game in front of a crowd.
Competing in these empty arenas was an adjustment for the players.
"For a guy that's been fortunate enough to play in some pretty crazy atmospheres, it was very, very, very different," an Eastern Conference veteran said. "I don't think you can compare it to the playoffs in any way. It just had a minor hockey feel to it. I think everyone understood that was the only way we were going to be able to play hockey. Like, this is how it had to be."
Publicly, few teams have mentioned the lack of fans as a factor in their postseason demise. The Vegas Golden Knights, for example, talked about the lack of a distinct home-ice advantage in the bubble. Privately, they say it was hard to motivate without fans.
"I know most guys won't admit it, but I feel like our team, personally, had a tough time getting up for the first round-robin game," one Eastern Conference player said. "It was hard to get guys going. You can't just snap into a playoff mentality after not playing for five months, and the first game playing in an empty arena just felt spooky."
"Quiet would be the first word I'd use," said a Western Conference player who was in his first playoffs. "The emotional swings were mostly provided by the team -- a big hit or a blocked shot or a goal. You had to not only get the emotion and the momentum, but you had to keep it on your bench and in your room for it to stay there. You don't have the buzz of the fans and the rink to help control the momentum for you."
One Western Conference veteran who has played in multiple long playoff runs said although there was an initial shock about playing in an empty arena, it wore off quickly.
"When you're in a playoff game, there's a palpable energy to the building. You feel it as soon as you come out," the player said. "That aspect was missing. But once the games start and you get going, the competitiveness takes over, and I didn't really notice [the lack of] fans."
Although ambient crowd noise has been a seamless integration on the TV broadcast -- thanks in part to a five-second delay -- it's a bit more disjointed at the arena.
"The sound felt a little off to me," a Western Conference player said. "It was a shot from the boards outside the top of the circle, and it was like, 'Waahahahhh!' and I was like, 'What? Why did they play that then?'"
Players said it wasn't distracting as much as it was amusing.
"It's actually funny. I could hear the ambient crowd noise. It wasn't very loud, but I could hear it," said one veteran who played in the Western Conference bubble. "But then I took a penalty and heard no noise at all, and it was, like, silent. It was really weird. I don't know if they just pumped it over the ice surface or what it was."
"They pumped in a little bit of the fan whispers up top, which was interesting," a Western Conference forward said. "The first couple games in the play-in round, I didn't even notice the pumped-in crowd noise. I don't know if they turned it up or not."
As for the quality of play? Here's how an Eastern Conference veteran described it: "The hockey was hockey. It's not like it was dramatically slower. It was nice that teams were able to get at least one exhibition game in. I don't know if you want to say if it was 'playoff hockey,' but it was good."
Said a Western Conference player: "There was definitely chatter of what teams wanted to be there and what teams wanted to be home. Ultimately, I think everyone realizes, whoever ends up winning the Cup this summer is a very deserving champion. We're going to remember that team forever. The grind this year makes it perhaps even harder to win."
What about a bubble for next season?
No one is sure yet what the 2020-21 NHL regular season is going to look like -- not the players, not the teams, not even the league. There are schedule considerations and financial modeling that looks at all situations, from a full season to a partial season, from full travel to limited travel. There are teams wondering if bubble life could make its return in 2020-21, especially at the start of the season, with fans returning to arenas later.
Another bubble would require the players to sign off on it again. Would they?
"No chance for a full season. Probably not for the playoffs," a Western Conference player said. "I think if we can play a full season with no bubble, as far as fly in, empty arena play and fly out, and that's safe, then there's no reason we would have to do a bubble for the playoffs either."
Another Western Conference player said he'd return to the bubble "if I absolutely had to do it again," but he warned that his NHLPA brethren wouldn't be quick to accept it. "If they wanted to do this again, there would be huge pushback from players. Huge pushback. I think everyone understood the situation this time, with the lack of runway up to this and how frantic everything was trying to plan it. But now, with the time that we have to figure out a different avenue, there would be much more pushback if they tried to do this again."
A few players indicated that they would consider it only for the postseason. "I would do it again in the same context -- for playoffs only," one said. "I would never do it again if they were talking about it for the season. The Stanley Cup is the ultimate prize, so if somebody told me, 'The only way you're going to win is if you go back in the bubble ...' then yeah, I'd do it. Because I don't know how many years I have left, you have to squeeze every chance."
If the bubbles return, they will have to be tweaked, one Western Conference player said. "Obviously, assuming we could make a few tweaks, I would do it again for the playoffs. For the whole season, I think it would be challenging. The big thing for me would be having my family there -- or your spouse/girlfriend/whoever."
One Eastern Conference veteran was emphatic in saying that the players wouldn't return to bubble life again. "No. No way. There's just no way. I just can't see that happening for anybody. To do it for the time that we had, for sure. We understood what had to be done. Guys were understanding of it. But even a guy like Tuukka [Rask], it took a lot for him to do that. Whatever his reasoning was, whatever the case may be, that goes to show right there that to do it for even a month, let alone a few, is really rough," he said.
But even this "never bubbler" said as a last resort ... well, he'd have to consider it.
"If the bubble is the only way ... you have guys on some teams that haven't played hockey in almost seven months," he said. "To go a full calendar year, guys are going to start going nuts. It might come to a point where they're like, 'Screw it. Let's just do this bubble thing.'"
In other words, players just want to get back on the ice, which was the driving motivation for the NHL and the NHLPA in creating the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles. The past two months have been proof of concept. They know what worked. They're learning what didn't. If they have to construct more bubbles to return to the ice next season, the players are optimistic that they can work with the NHL to build a better bubble.
"I think knowing what we know now, we could rectify a lot of things," an Eastern Conference veteran said. "So I actually think I'd go back, as crazy as it sounds."