In a week, the Islanders will depart Long Island and travel to Toronto, the hub city for the Eastern Conference playoffs through the conference semifinals. As they prepare for the next phase in the NHL’s return to play plan, a few other leagues have already established life in “the bubble” and the Islanders have certainly been paying attention to how that’s working out. The NBA, WNBA, and Major League Soccer have set up shop at Walt Disney World in Orlando with MLS having already returned to play with their World Cup style “MLS Is Back” tournament.
So there has already been something for the Islanders, as well as the other 23 teams heading to Toronto and Edmonton, to examine before getting a first-hand look at what that will be like.
“I’ve been watching soccer mostly every night,” said Islanders Head Coach Barry Trotz. “One of the things I think that you’re hearing and reading some of the stuff on social media about the bubble is I think it’s working quite fine for a lot of the other teams especially the soccer once everybody got to the bubble.”
(Islanders Head Coach Barry Trotz)
The Islanders will have a couple of days to practice and get acclimated to the bubble in Toronto before facing the Rangers in an exhibition game on July 29th at Scotiabank Arena at 8pm. Then, the focus shifts to the best of five qualifying round against the Florida Panthers beginning with game one on Saturday August 1st at 4pm. But aside from practice, games, meals, and workouts, how will the Islanders spend their time in Toronto?
Well what the players in the other sports have done has been right there on social media for the whole world to see.
“I’ve definitely seen some of the NBA stuff on Twitter and what not from those guys,” said center Mat Barzal. “We’re going to get there and just feel the process out I think whether it’s hanging in your room with a few guys playing cards or playing the guitar or doing whatever to try and stay busy.
(Islanders center Mat Barzal)
During the first week of training camp on Long Island, the Islanders have been on the ice each day except for this past Thursday when they had a day off. There have been three intrasquad scrimmages to help the Islanders get back to the feel of what it’s going to be like to play in real games. But until they depart for Toronto, the Islanders players, coaches, and staff have to spend their time away from the Northwell Health Ice Center, whether it’s at home or running errands, in a safe and smart fashion.
“This is when you could get sick if you make a poor decision,” said Trotz. “Or maybe not even make a poor decision but just not be conscious of going to the grocery store, picking up your groceries and maybe not wiping down the packages and that type of stuff. You might not be doing anything wrong but this is the most important time.”
Under normal circumstances, when the Islanders are home, they would go to their facility for practice or a morning skate and then they were on their own. Same for gamedays at Nassau Coliseum or Barclays Center as they would go to the morning skate at the facility, go home to relax, and then back to the arena. Same thing on the road but instead of resting at home or doing other things on Long Island, downtime is spent in the hotel or perhaps exploring the city that you’re in.
But in Toronto, and also in Edmonton if the Islanders reach the conference final, the life on the road is not going to mirror what is normal in a non-pandemic world.
“I think it’s going to be different but once we get there and adapt, I think it’s going to be no problem,” said Barzal. “We’re all going there knowing that we’re playing hockey and playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs so I think that goal is going to be the main focus and just try to pass the time regardless of what’s going on.”
And from what’s been reported from the other sports that are already in the bubble, the expectation is that a hub city can and will work out just fine.
“Once you get to that hub city and you get in the bubble, I think it’s all systems go for the most part,” said Trotz. “I’m not too worried once we get to the bubble. It’s just getting to the bubble.”
And the end of the day, going to Toronto and then possibly on to Edmonton is a business trip for the Islanders. There will not be any fans at the games and the overall experience is going to be vastly different than anything they’ve seen at home or on the road before. However, the players and coaches know that the ultimate goal is still the same and that is to win the Stanley Cup.
Regardless of what they can do away from the rink, the Islanders have a job to do.
“Just doing whatever to stay busy and keep the mind ready,” said Barzal. “But at the end of the day we’re all going to be worried about the playoffs so I don’t think there’s going to be too much extracurricular stuff.”
The Islanders will have one more week of training camp on Long Island before they embark on a business trip to Toronto that they hope will eventually include a connecting flight to Edmonton. The Stanley Cup is already considered by many to be the most difficult championship to win in professional sports but the road to hoisting the cup this year will come with a set of challenges and distractions never seen before.
To win the Stanley Cup this year, the Islanders, and the other 23 teams heading to Canada to compete, will have to not only excel on the ice, but also excel at life in a bubble.