Flames experience in NHL playoff bubble brings memories of youth tournaments

Think of this as, basically, a minor hockey tournament.

From the dorm room-like accommodations to the practice rinks to the large common areas, regular interactions with other National Hockey League players and teams are a common occurrence — and, clearly, not the case when life isn’t happening during a global health crisis and pandemic.

Take the Calgary Flames’ final practice ice time on Friday, before they finally get this thing going on Saturday, nearly five full months since the NHL paused its’ regular season due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Players cruised past a few other teams’ locker-rooms to get to theirs.

Usually, there would be arena staff, security guards, dividers, or walls separating the visiting team and home teams. A run-in with an opposing player would only happen if one of them were lost.

“Today, we walked by the Jets locker-room, like, three or four times on the way in and out,” Matthew Tkachuk was saying on Friday during the Flames’ Zoom media conference. “You don’t normally do that, especially when you play each other in playoffs. Now, there are a lot of interactions with players on other teams. You can’t help it. You can’t avoid it. The bubble is so small and so tight, you’re going to run into other players and coaches and management. Everyone wants to come and watch the games when you’re not playing, too.

“I’ve said it before — it’s literally a youth hockey tournament.”

It’s a far cry from 19,000 screaming fans in the ‘C’ of Red at Scotiabank Saddledome. Or the white towels whipping around at Bell MTS Place.

But it’s still that game they’ve been playing their entire life. The game that has paid them handsomely and awarded them stardom and recognition for the hours of work they’ve devoted to their craft.

Yet, boiled down, it’s hockey in its’ most basic form.

EDMONTON, ALBERTA – JULY 28: Head coach Geoff Ward of the Calgary Flames looks on against the Edmonton Oilers during the second period in an exhibition game prior to the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on July 28, 2020 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Jeff Vinnick / Getty Images

Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice summed it up.

“It’s pure hockey, right?” said the opposing boss who, earlier this season, coached his group to a 2-1 overtime win in the teams’ only meeting at Mosaic Stadium in Regina for the Heritage Classic. “So, there’s nobody in the stands, we get that. It’s certainly an unusual environment. But the puck still drops and everything else is the same after that. The game is the same.

“I would say everybody’s enthusiastic.”

Mark Giordano, his protective mask draped around his chin during the duration of the Flames’ call, certainly echoed that sentiment.

“It’s been a long time from the last time we played a game,” said the Calgary captain who had logged 25:48 in a 5-3 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on March 8, the team’s last game before the break. “And to jump into a meaningful game like this, a series against the Jets. You could see the excitement on our team, on guys’ faces today and I’m sure when we get out there for (Saturday’s) pre-game skate, it’ll ramp up even more. But, really, you have to thank everyone that was able to put this together. The League, the (NHL)PA, all came together and created this bubble and it’s allowed us to play meaningful games.”

Tkachuk agreed.

“I mean, there was a stretch there that we thought this day would never come,” said the 22-year-old left-winger. “Just the help of every single person that was involved in this. Gio basically said it all. All the volunteers that are helping out in the bubble right now. It’s crazy how quick this thing came together if you think about it. Stuff that takes a year, maybe even longer to plan. Very impressive … I’m sure when we wake up (Saturday) it’ll be the same game day feel we’ve always had.”

And this game day feeling — heading into Game 1 of their best-of-five series against the Jets to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs — has been a long time coming.

Both teams have had months to analyze every detail of the opposition, every aspect of their own game, and scout every player’s strengths and weaknesses.

Add that to the fact that Tkachuk and Giordano could very well be drinking a double-double at the Tim Hortons in the bubble, right next to Connor Hellebuyck or Blake Wheeler, and there’s nothing normal about this situation.

But according to Flames head coach Geoff Ward, the distractions are minimal. Just like in minor hockey, you spend every waking minute of the day with your teammates.

“The fact that we’re together, I think, is a good thing,” Ward said. “I mean, when you’re at home in a playoff series, a lot of things happen. You’ve got people calling you for tickets. You’ve got people coming into town. There’s a lot of things that can be on your plate as opposed to just worrying about game days.

“So, for us, being in the bubble, our distractions are certainly minimized and I think that helps normalize it for the players a little bit.”

In other words, drop the puck already.

“I mean, it’s the best time of the year,” Ward continued. “We all want to be playing important games. We all want to be playing at playoff time and certainly, we are. So, it’s exciting. I mean, not only the fact that it’s playoffs but the fact we’re getting going again after the pause.

“We can hardly wait until (Saturday).”

EDMONTON, ALBERTA – JULY 28: Cam Talbot #39 of the Calgary Flames takes to the ice prior to an exhibition game against the Edmonton Oilers prior to the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on July 28, 2020 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Jeff Vinnick / Getty Images


The NHL made a ruling on the conditions of last summer’s Milan Lucic-James Neal trade that swapped the players between the Edmonton Oilers and Flames. The Oilers are shipping their third-round pick in either 2020 or 2021 to the Flames to complete the deal — and will have until the start of the third round of this summer’s Stanley Cup playoffs to decide which year the selection will be in. Originally, the conditions stated that in order for the Oilers to send their draft pick to the Flames, Neal had to record at least 21 goals in the 2019-20 season while Lucic had to have scored at least 10 fewer goals than Neal. Lucic had eight goals and 12 assists in 68 games while Neal had 19 goals and 12 assists in 55 games.

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