At one time, “bubble hockey” simply meant the rod hockey tables you might find at an arcade or in your cool friend’s basement next to the foosball and air hockey tables. Now, however, “bubble hockey” will forever be associated with the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
There was only one way the NHL was going to pull off the playoffs in the middle of a global pandemic: by putting all the players in a quarantine bubble. Impressively, it actually worked. The two bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto held, with no positive cases of COVID-19 reported from the NHL’s regular testing during the playoffs.
Life inside the bubble wasn’t perfect, but it got the job done. But, would NHLers be willing to do it again?
Bo Horvat, at least, isn't so sure.
“It was tougher than I thought, mentally, being away from your family and not knowing when you were going to see them,” said Horvat in a Zoom call with the media on Thursday. “Would I do it again? I don’t know.
“I think if my family could come and spend that time with us from the beginning, I’d have no problem doing it. Being away from them that long was tough, so I think if we could bring families and be able to see them sooner, that would definitely be a lot better for me.”
It was an especially pertinent question, posed by Sportsnet’s Iain MacIntyre, given that Horvat’s wife, Holly, had just given birth to their first child, Gunnar John Horvat, before the playoffs. Horvat had just one week with Gunnar before he had to leave for training camp and lamented the time spent away from his newborn child.
"I'm not going to lie, it's not easy to leave your newborn," said Horvat during training camp. "I knew it was going to be tough, but you don't know until it actually happens. Leaving Sunday was probably one of the toughest things I've ever had to go through, leaving your family behind."
That made the end of the playoffs bittersweet. As much as he wanted to win, he was happy to return home to Gunnar.
“It was pretty emotional, I’ll be honest with you,” said Horvat on Thursday. “Obviously, I missed my family a lot and missed him. I couldn’t believe how much he changed already in two months. It was pretty crazy to come back and see him the way he is now. Losing was obviously tough, but to know that I got to come home and see my family again was really special. I’m just enjoying spending time with him right now.”
Horvat’s not the only new dad on the Canucks. Jordie Benn left training camp to be there for his partner Jessica and the birth of their first child before the start of the playoffs. Before the pandemic hit, Benn thought the summer would be an ideal time for the birth of his child.
“We definitely thought we nailed the timing,” said Benn. “You obviously want to be around for the birth of your kid. You want to be able to hang out for at least a couple weeks or a month when they’re brand new like that.”
“We thought we planned it perfectly,” he added. “And then this whole pandemic started.”
Before the playoffs began and the plans were still being negotiated, Benn didn’t mince words.
“I know a lot of guys have kids around the league and they’re already saying, ‘There’s no way I’m not going to see my family for two months,’” said Benn. “Look, you can’t tell a dad that he can’t see his family for two months. There’s just no way that’s possible.”
Benn rejoined the Canucks after the birth of his daughter, Billie Ann Benn, and didn’t quite spend two months away from his family. Instead, it was closer to one month, but he still missed his newborn every day.
The question is now, what will the 2020-21 season look like? Bubble hockey has worked for a short-term tournament like the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but it’s just not feasible for a full regular season, both logistically speaking, but also mentally for the coaches, staff, and players.
The schedule of a regular season can be malleable, however, able to work around any potential outbreaks or positive tests. If the NHL gets to the 2021 playoffs and wants to go back to bubble hockey, they might be in for a tougher fight from the NHLPA. After all, Horvat is the Canucks’ NHLPA representative, and you can bet he’ll fight hard for families to be allowed inside the bubble.