EDMONTON, ALBERTA – The summer of 2020, the NHL “Bubble” playoffs here in Edmonton, is something none of us who were here will ever forget. Maybe the Colorado Avalanche would like to forget it, but they had some good times here as well. It wasn’t all bad. Well, a lot of it was bad, though.
The Avalanche, you’ll recall, played all their playoff games at Rogers Place in that weird, crazy, surreal summer of 2020, when Covid was in full effect and nobody had any vaccines yet. After heavy consideration and planning, the NHL – after having canceled the final weeks of the regular season – spent tens of millions of dollars setting up two bubble locations – Toronto and Edmonton – for an expanded playoffs.
The Avalanche would play 15 games here in total, three of which were in a round-robin seeding setup. After beating the Blues, on a Nazem Kadri goal with 0.1 seconds left in regulation, the Avs entered as the top seed in the West and a first-round series with the Arizona Coyotes, whose goalie was a guy named Darcy Kuemper.
The games were played with no fans in the stands. Artificial noise was pumped into Rogers Place. Every time it looked like a collision between two players would happen, a sound effect that sounded like a whooshing artic breeze would play. There were videos on the JumboTron of fans from each team, cheering their teams on from thousands of miles away. Between periods, there was absolute dead silence in the arena, save for the sounds of two or three media people on hand typing into their computers.
I was one of them. Just three journalists from the U.S. made the journey to Edmonton to cover any of the playoffs there. I was one, Sarah McLellan from the Star Tribune (Minnesota) was one and Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was the other. I stayed for all of the Avs’ playoff games, 50 days in total.
I wrote all about it, starting with this entry from my now infamous Airbnb.
The Avs stayed at the J.W. Marriott hotel, which actually is connected to Rogers Place. Players would literally walk to the arena through the connected “bridges.” Players otherwise could not be very many places other than the rink and their rooms. There was a “team area” on their hotel, where players could play ping-pong or watch TV, stuff like that. Otherwise: no team dinners allowed outside of any NHL-sanctioned restaurants, inside the “bubble” that comprised the J-Dub, the arena, the two or three restaurants and an outside mixed zone area that included a couple food trucks, including a beloved Tim Horton’s truck. The entire area around the arena was all fenced in. If a player was caught venturing outside the fences, they would have had the book thrown at them.
“Books, video games, Netflix and your phone,” is how Ryan Graves, the former Av, remembers his time in the bubble. “The games were weird. It was the first time we’d played in a while, but that was the start of when no fans were allowed in. The whole thing was just very strange.”
As a media member, I didn’t have as many drastic restrictions on where I could go. I could walk the streets anywhere. I rented a car shortly after my mandatory two-week quarantine was over (two weeks, I did not leave that Airbnb, not once) and drove up to a place called Hinton, a lovely mountain town about two hours from E-Town. I could not go anywhere near the players, though. Despite being in the same building for games, I had to ask questions via Zoom. It was all just very weird – and remember, this was the start of everything Covid-wise, so it was all uncharted territory, for all of us.
Avs coach Jared Bednar caught up on some reading during the bubble, when he wasn’t devising schemes to stop the opposition (the books he brought to Edmonton were “Command Authority” by Tom Clancy, “12-Second Culture” by Mike Metcalf and Shaun Peet and “Raise Your Game” by Alan Stein Jr.).
Otherwise, there just wasn’t much else to do. Everybody was kind of nervous about being around each other. You didn’t know what to believe, when reading about the virus. Was it contagious just touching a counter? Was it dangerous just to talk within six feet of someone?
Now? While there are still Covid restrictions in much of Canada (you have to wear a mask inside airports still, for instance) the team is able to live a normal life again for the most part.
“Different environment,” Jared Bednar said with a laugh, when asked about then and now. “Lot of similarities – hotel to the rink. But it felt like we spent six months here the last time, if not longer. It’s just such a different time now. Everybody is back in the building. You see the passion that Edmonton has for the team, and rightly so. It’s a lot more fun this time around, with the fans a part of it. They are what makes the game. It’s so much better when the fans are involved.”
The Avs and I would have stayed another couple weeks or so had they been able to hold a 4-3 lead with 3:43 left in regulation against the Dallas Stars in Game 7 of the second round. Just when I was about to call the new hotel I was staying at to extend things, the Avs and Michael Hutchinson allowed the tying goal, then lost shortly into OT.
Now? The Avs are in Round 3 in Edmonton, one win away from a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Times, certainly, have changed.