CHARLOTTETOWN, PE – It’s been 10 days since the Stanley Cup was hoisted in the hands of Tampa Bay Lightning Captain and NHL veteran Steven Stamkos. A season like no other and a unique experience for all. When the NHL announced back in July how they would proceed to crown a champion for the 2020 season many fans were excited by the plan put forward by the NHL to host two bubble cities while teams were anxious to hear about how the experience would work.
To win the Stanley Cup – the most prestigious trophy in the world it takes an enormous amount of both physical and mental strength and a team-first approach to reach that final buzzer and celebration. Something that isn’t easy under normal circumstances, but even tougher in the year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Three (3) Prince Edward Island natives had the opportunity to compete for Lord Stanley this season. Two of which reached the conference finals with the New York Islanders – Ross Johnston and Noah Dobson and of course Zack MacEwen who was a part of the young developing Vancouver Canucks squad.
We had the opportunity to interview (virtually) all three Islanders about their individual experiences inside the NHL bubble and what their perspective of the 2020 NHL Playoffs was.
Both Charlottetown’s Ross Johnston and Summerside’s Noah Dobson were in the bubble for over 50 days sharing time in both the Toronto and Edmonton bubble. Stratford’s, Zack MacEwen wasn’t too far off, being in the Edmonton bubble for a total of 45 days. All three of the Hockey PEI alumni noted different pros and cons about the bubbles, but for Ross Johnston, it was the Toronto bubble he enjoyed the most. Johnston noted that there were just more things to do, and the outdoor areas for fresh air were so much more accessible than Edmonton. The New York Islanders had the BMO Field next to hotel x where they were staying in Toronto, so they were able to go there, play some soccer, lawn games, etc. and watch hockey all at the same time on the stadium screen. While he did have high praises for not only the Toronto bubble but also the Edmonton bubble, all things considered, Johnston also noted their experiences became old nearing the end of their stay inside the bubble.
“Most activities by day 55 got repetitive haha, but playing cards and ping pong are what consumed the majority of the downtime.” The bubble in the mind of Johnston was all mental, “A big key was trying to keep yourself positive and engaged in the end goal, which is winning, which can be tough especially if you’re not in the lineup each game. It’s easy to be negative about the bubble and things within it, but it is what it is, and multiple players, staff, and support systems were going through the same thing.”
Support systems for the players was a common topic within the three (3) Pros from PEI. Time away from friends and family in a normal season is challenging enough, but to add in the idea of being restricted to one space, in particular, was not easy.
“I think for most of us, especially guys with family’s, the bubble was challenging. With that being said, our team made the most of it, enjoyed the bonding time, became closer as a group, and enjoyed the success on the ice because of it,” said Johnston.
That success was no secret to fans across the league. The Islanders showed nothing but good things inside the bubble during the postseason. “I think our team made great strides towards our end goal. First time for our franchise to a conference finals in 27 years. I think we know the fine line between winning and losing, and just how close we actually came to winning is exciting, and frustrating at the same time. So we’ll use that as motivation going forward.”
Johnston, who is known to be an enforcer on the ice, didn’t shy away from admitting it was weird at times inside the bubble “I think the NHL did a good job at showing fans what we were going through within the bubble. But seeing guys on other teams at the hotel that you just went to war against, isn’t something we were used to, and isn’t ideal depending on the result of the game…”
All three PEI natives inside the bubble indicated that those with families such as a wife and kids experienced more hardship with adjusting to the NHL bubble life than those like NHL rookie Noah Dobson who was already used to living away from his family for many seasons now both in the NHL and amateur hockey. Dobson, like Johnston, was in both bubbles including 3 different hotels. Hotel X in Toronto was set up the best he explained as there were tons of activities and options for players to kill time during the long days inside the bubble. The Toronto bubble included tennis courts, gym, rooftop pool, and large outdoor spaces. Of course, the NHL rookie defenceman like many other players found it difficult some days inside the bubble especially when not practicing or playing – it was hard to kill time. “I played a lot of ping pong, pickleball, and watched a lot of hockey as there were plenty of games on,” said Dobson. Of course, the pride of Summerside is not too shy around the golf course either and took advantage of the Golf simulator on-site at the bubble during his stay. When asked what he could compare the experience to, he said “There isn’t anything to compare it too besides things you would see in a movie”.
As much as the days were sometimes long, the Summerside Native and two-time memorial cup champion had nothing but praise for the NHL. “I felt 100% completely safe inside the bubble” “The National Hockey League did a great job in making sure everyone was safe with the rules and restrictions they had in place”.
As much as Dobson found the Toronto bubble to be a decent setup, he did state that the set up in Edmonton felt like you were contained into a prison courtyard type atmosphere and did not portray as much “normalcy” as the Toronto bubble did.
One person who had lots of experience with that particular bubble is Stratford’s, Zack MacEwen. He shared similarities to both Johnston and Dobson’s experiences like playing a lot of ping pong and quite a bit of Xbox. When asked how his mindset was around the whole bubble experience, MacEwen has this to say: “No I didn’t really find it challenging to live inside the bubble, it was tough being away from family and living in a hotel for so long but the opportunity to win the cup was a great reason for what we were there to do and that outweighed the challenges of being in the bubble”
Another golf simulator user inside the bubble, MacEwen mentioned how fans may not have understood how close you were with your opponent. “ I think just how close we were to other teams. Like a few times just being in the elevator with a guy on another team that you were playing against. It’s just something that you’re not really used to.”
Trying to put the entire experience into one idea or word was tough for MacEwen as like any other player or staff who lived it for that long of a period. “It was unlike any other experience I’ve ever been a part of so to say that it was easy wouldn’t necessarily be true, but overall I thought it was a very positive and exciting experience. The chance to win the Stanley cup was worth every day that we were in there and I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
A great comparison that many other NHL members playing or working inside the bubble had was shared in our interview with MacEwen who related the experience to a “bigger longer minor hockey tournament” in some aspects.
The undrafted forward, who just signed a two-year contract extension with Vancouver on Tuesday, October 6th expressed also how safe he felt inside the Edmonton bubble.
“They were very thorough in the way they prepared and handled all the testing and making sure everything was healthy and tests were coming back negative each day.”
The Vancouver Canucks proved to be a hard team to get rid of inside the NHL bubble. As MacEwen mentions, and as a lot of NHL hockey fans believed, the Canucks overachieved in terms of where everyone predicted they would finish their season. “I think we made a really good push and surprised a lot of people this year. We made a lot of progress and gained a lot of valuable experience and I think that will only help the team build going into next year.”
All three Island natives are happy to be entering into the off-season despite not getting their hands on the hardware this season. Johnston, Dobson, and MacEwen are all looking forward to playing some golf, spending time with friends and family and of course living a semi-normal life again considering the circumstances they were presented with this summer. One thing is for sure – all three are eager to get back to work and start preparing. The questions we are left with is: Who would win in a ping pong tournament, and which of the three could put on a show on the golf course.
The story continues for these three determined PEI products.
Hockey PEI is the governing body for organized hockey in Prince Edward Island. Hockey PEI’s main purpose is to foster, promote, develop, supervise, regulate, and govern the sport of amateur hockey throughout Prince Edward Island. For more on Hockey PEI and its programs visit www.hockeypei.com or contact:
Coordinator, Operations & Communications
Hockey Prince Edward Island