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From The Brick to The Bubble: How NHLers got their starts at the famous youth tournament

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A young hockey player’s first out-of-town tournament is in many ways a rite of passage in the sport. It means the first time seeing players from other parts of the country or world and gauging where one’s game stands against that of peers. It’s hours on end at the rinks, parents nursing weak coffee in frigid bleachers, knee hockey in the hotel hallway, a whole lot of pizza, pool parties, bewildered hotel guests wondering where all these rowdy children came from and an exasperated staff that has all but given up on containing them.

As the years go on, the tournaments get more serious, and the stakes get higher. In Edmonton, the NHL is about to cap off its adult version of a seemingly never-ending hockey tournament. It has been more than 80 days in the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs bubble for members of the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning, marching their way to the 2020 final.

Most players these teams have never won the Cup, but every single one of them has dreamed of it. It was in those youth hockey tournaments that many of those dreams were born, with days and nights spent around teammates, hoping that the tournaments would never end. In light of that, perhaps it’s fitting that the NHL’s bubble is in Edmonton to close out the season. The city also plays host to the Brick Invitational Tournament, one of the most famous youth hockey tournaments in North America and the epicenter of hockey in the summer months.

An Edmonton beginning

For one week each year, some of the best 10-year-old hockey players in North America converge on an ice rink under a domed ceiling inside the sprawling West Edmonton Mall, 20 minutes southwest of Rogers Place. Founded in 1990, the Brick has seen more than 200 alumni reach the NHL. In fact, eight players on the playoff rosters of the teams in the final, including four regulars, played in the Brick as 10-year-olds. Lightning forwards Tyler Johnson and Brayden Point are both past Brick champions. In all, about 90 players who participated in the Brick tournament played in the NHL’s postseason bubble at some point this season.

Craig Styles, the tournament chairman, has been there from the very beginning and has been overwhelmed by the success of the tournament. “It’s exciting to see the names that come up every draft year, but for me, it’s really the respect and citizenship that happens at the tournament,” he said. “I see the kids competing, but they high-five each other walking in the retail center, then they all get together at the end of the tournament and trade sweaters and pins, and they keep these relationships going.”

The Eastern Conference finals, in particular, provided a bit of a Brick reunion of sorts. Tampa Bay’s Johnson went head-to-head with New York Islanders forward Jordan Eberle; the duo were teammates at the Brick in 2000. Their Vancouver Vipers squad beat a team of Toronto-based superstars led by Johnson’s eventual Lightning teammate Steven Stamkos. Then Point captained Team Brick, the tournament’s official host team, to the 2006 title. A year later, Isles center Mathew Barzal led his Brick team to a title and earned tournament MVP honors.

“It was a great experience and one of my fondest memories growing up playing hockey as a kid,” Johnson recently told The Edmonton Sun. “The tournament had lots of great skill and was very well organized. I remember hanging out at West Edmonton Mall for a full week. It was lots of fun.”

Eberle and Johnson scored some big goals in their Brick tournament, and Eberle scored the overtime game winner to take the tournament title 20 years before he netted an OT winner to extend the series in last week’s Eastern Conference finals Game 5.

Intro to bubble life

Once Brick teams arrive at the tournament each year, Styles notes that players and families don’t have much need to leave the West Edmonton Mall, the largest mall in North America.

“The very first year, we called it ‘a tournament for the whole family,'” Styles said. “To me, it was about a hockey experience, but it was an experience that took grandma and grandpa, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters and got them out of the cold rinks in winter and put them in one of the most amazing structures in the world. A lot of families never stepped foot outside the mall for those seven days, and I know that for a fact.”

Beyond the 800-plus stores and pair of hotels, the mall includes a 24-hour gym and a miniature golf course. The tournament often partners with mall entities, including a large waterpark and amusement park attached to the structure. It isn’t uncommon to see players battling on the ice one moment and racing down the waterslides the next, according to Styles.

Interactions with opposing players are a little more awkward at the NHL level, but that’s one of the youth tournament aspects that many players have noted as a similarity.

“The bubble is so small that you’re going to run into other people from other teams, players, coaches, management. It’s unavoidable,” Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk said earlier in the playoffs. “Everyone wants to go watch each other’s games, too. It’s literally a youth hockey tournament. It’s pretty cool actually.”

At a youth hockey tournament, games can take a bit of a backseat to hoarding the sweetest offerings of the continental breakfast, hours on end at arcades, jumping in the pool over and over, and testing the limits of the hotel’s noise policy. For NHL players, the grown-up version of the youth tournament lifestyle has included some of the old staples from their younger days, such as pingpong, video game tournaments and movie nights. The Vegas Golden Knights‘ famed “Fun Committee” played the role often reserved for the “cool dads” on the youth circuit, finding fun things for players to do.

That’s where there’s a big difference between the NHL’s playoff bubble and the youth tournaments of yesteryear. The games are obviously the highlight of the day, and players have lamented not being able to have their families with them for this experience. Several players told ESPN that the distance has been noticeable. As Emily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski explored, the entertainment and accommodations that the NHL provided were “not as advertised,” according to a Western Conference player, and “oversold,” per another.

Although the lack of family time has been a struggle, the ties that bind teams are stronger through this shared experience.

“We’ve been here for so long. We’ve all kind of been into the routine that we’re in. There aren’t a whole lot of options for entertainment, so we’ve really bonded as a team, just being around each other in the lounge, playing cards, hanging out, eating meals together,” Dallas Stars forward Blake Comeau said. “I guess you can kind of look at it in a way as when you’re younger. Going to tournaments, being in the hotel, playing mini sticks in the hallway — obviously, we’re not doing that. But you are spending a lot of time together as a team. Really bonded. Really grown. I think that’s a big reason why we’ve put ourselves in this opportunity to win the Stanley Cup.”

The Brick today

Like so many things this year, the 2020 Brick Invitational was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, marking the first summer without the tournament since it began 30 years ago. Styles has worked with the tournament committee to create another opportunity for the kids who were supposed to travel to Edmonton for this year’s event: a second tournament in 2021 exclusively for those 11-year-olds, in addition to holding the Brick for the 10-year-olds at its regularly scheduled time next summer.

Hockey tournaments across North America are scarce in general this year, as many wait until it is deemed safer to travel. Some local governments are not allowing any contact sports until the COVID-19 pandemic is more under control, which puts hockey in the crosshairs. Some teams will have to decide if it’s worth going to places that have less stringent rules but higher virus rates in order to get on the ice. That’s not to mention the number of players who might not be able to play because of financial constraints caused by the pandemic.

For now, young players can watch and live vicariously through their NHL heroes. Likewise, NHL players might have younger versions of themselves in the backs of their heads. They know how long they have dreamed of this opportunity. At this stage of the game, the players have one-track minds.

“I think reflection a lot of times happens in those days and weeks after a season is over,” said Stars forward Tyler Seguin, a 2002 Brick Tournament participant. “If you start reflecting now or start thinking ahead, you’re going to miss that opportunity and that window of what this moment is.”

After all, the fondest tournament memories are usually from the ones you win.

ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski contributed to this story.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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