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Why aren’t there more families in the NHL bubble?



Meg and Justin Dowling welcomed their first child, a daughter named Perri, on March 21 — one week after the NHL season was paused.

They spent three months together as a family. On June 27, Dowling flew to Dallas for postseason training camp, while Meg and Perri stayed home in Cochrane, Alberta. “Of course they had a choice to opt out, but they don’t really have a choice,” Meg Dowling says. “This is his dream he’s chasing. I’m so happy for him, but I knew he’d miss so much.”

Dowling’s Dallas Stars have made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Back home, Perri had her first laugh. She held her head up for the first time. She spent hours petting the family’s two dogs, giggling.

“I was there for all of that, and he wasn’t,” Meg Dowling says. “She’s completely different now. She’s a totally different baby.”

The couple FaceTimed every day. Meg was worried that the screen time wasn’t enough. “Are you scared she isn’t going to know you?” she asked Justin. He said no, but she feared the answer was yes.

The family was apart for 76 days. Sometime in the middle, Justin went dark for three days. He didn’t call; he barely texted back. “I didn’t know what was going on,” Meg says. “I messaged him, ‘Are you OK?'”

Justin only later revealed to Meg the reason for his absence: “He said, ‘I was so sad, and not doing well, and I just couldn’t see you or talk to you,'” Meg recalls. “I was broken. Broken when I heard that.”

During the conference finals, the NHL allowed clearance for some families to enter the Edmonton bubble. Since the Dowlings live two hours away, it was easy for Meg and Perri to make the trip. They self-isolated for a week, drove to Edmonton, then quarantined for another four days in a hotel. Once Meg produced her fourth negative COVID-19 test, Justin was allowed to visit their hotel room. Perri, who had just woken up from a nap, recognized her dad instantly. Meg cried. Perri smiled, and later spent the day tugging at her dad’s playoff beard.

“I’m so grateful for this opportunity, and the NHL has done such an amazing job making us feel safe and secure,” Meg says. “But I also feel bad. It’s been really, really hard for a lot of families. So many of the girls and families on our team are in the U.S. or Europe, and they don’t even have the option to come here, as of right now. They don’t get to share this experience, like we can with Justin.”

When the NHL and NHLPA negotiated bubble protocols, they agreed “spouses, partners and children” would be able to join by the conference finals. However, at the time of the deal in July, things were moving fast; the deal was agreed to on a Friday night, and training camps began that following Monday. The government in Alberta gave exemptions for NHL teams and staffers to skirt the federally mandated 14-day quarantine; however, it said they still needed to mull over the request for additional family members to join later.

The NHL and NHLPA didn’t want to hold things up, so they agreed to go forward with their deal, hopeful the issue would be resolved. The tournament got off to a strong start; for seven straight weeks there have been zero positive confirmed tests, with thousands of tests being performed each week. And yet they didn’t get clearance from Alberta health and government officials to have family members outside of Canada exempt from the 14-day quarantine.

As of this week, Dowling is the only wife and Perri is the only baby in the bubble. Four Vegas Golden Knights players’ girlfriends — all Canadians, living in Canada — had begun the process for entry but were in the middle of their four-day quarantines when Vegas was eliminated. The Stars say that seven additional family members (all Canadian and in Canada currently) will make the trip for the Stanley Cup Final, including Jamie Oleksiak‘s parents, Corey Perry‘s wife and Tyler Seguin‘s mom, dad and two sisters.

The NHL has wanted to keep the bubble as small as possible to minimize risk. Adding a new wave of people, this late in the tournament, inherently threatens more exposure to the virus. Even though the players and league had a handshake on the agreement, many players became frustrated by a lack of transparency through the process, and felt the goal posts were constantly moving.

“To be honest, the whole thing was not quite as billed,” says one Western Conference player who spent weeks in the Edmonton bubble. “Before we get there it was like, ‘Oh, absolutely, bring the families in for the conference finals. We’ll have it all set up. It will be great!’ Then once we got there, it was like, ‘Oh, we don’t know how we’re going to do the family thing.’ Then they said they were having trouble with the Canadian government not letting families in. Which I think is kind of bulls—, to be honest, because they had no trouble getting our third equipment manager in, or our social media coordinator, or … I could go on. It seemed like they didn’t want the families in there when it really got down to it. The boxes they made families check were a little unrealistic.”

Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Zach Bogosian and his wife, Bianca, are American, and they live in Minnesota during the offseason. They have three kids, all under the age of 4. Bogosian, the third overall pick of the 2008 draft, would love for his family to be with him, and potentially celebrate on the ice should he win his first Stanley Cup.

“It was talked about; we went through a bunch of scenarios,” Bogosian says. “But it would be pretty tough for my wife to be cooped in a hotel room with three kids that young. It’s been hard on a lot of guys because we still haven’t gotten a for-sure answer. I know people are working hard to try to get us answers, but obviously it’s an uncertain time for everyone in the world, and we’re no better than anyone else.”

The NHL, aware of the sacrifice so many families have made, is trying to speed through the tournament, getting everyone home as soon as possible. Off days have been minimal, and there’s even expected to be one back-to-back set of games baked into the Stanley Cup Final schedule.

Players have tried to find the comforts of home the best they can. When the Nashville Predators arrived in Edmonton, they found framed photos of their loved ones already in their hotel rooms (thanks to the team’s hockey operations department). The mother and grandmother of Colorado Avalanche forward Tyson Jost dropped off homemade baked goods to the bubble, which Jost shared with teammates. During the Western Conference finals, the NHL began showing videos on the Jumbotrons of players’ families rooting for them. While the players ultimately appreciated the sentiment, there was a miscommunication about whether players knew about the videos ahead of time — and a few were caught off guard to see such personal videos appear in the heat of intense games.

The NHL is planning to integrate more virtual family moments into the Stanley Cup Final games, though organizers promise to work with both the families and the players to create something meaningful.

The NHL also made an expensive investment to secure extensive Wi-Fi and cellular service in the bubble. Tournament organizers knew players would be much happier if they could bide time in their hotel rooms playing video games, and they needed to be able to connect with loved ones without interruption.

Bogosian, for example, FaceTimes his family in the morning when he’s walking to the rink, at nights when he’s walking back to the hotel, and after team meetings the evening before games. He has watched his 4-year-old daughter, Mila, take tennis lessons on FaceTime; Bianca tries to keep the camera on the court while also chasing their other two kids. Hunter, who will be 2 in November, was mostly communicating by pointing and making noises when Bogosian was last home. Now Hunter is stringing together almost-sentences of two and three words. Harper, who is 9 months old, has begun crawling and standing up on things over the past three months.

“For people to just watch on TV, they may say, ‘Oh, they’re just hockey players,'” Bogosian says. “But we’re hockey players for only three or four hours a day. We have the other 20 hours to be a brother, a father, a son, a husband. Our support system is what helps us get through something like the bubble, but it’s also hard to be without it.”

Just as the goal posts moved on the family issue, players felt a bit misled about amenities in the bubble. Players in the Western Conference, for example, were given a brochure featuring a picture of a man fly-fishing in the mountains. “Where did they even get that picture?” one player remarked. “The mountains are three hours away.” Players were also promised excursions, like golf outings. But when they got to the bubble, players were told they couldn’t go golfing for at least 14 days, and by the time they could go, games were being played every other day and players weren’t as enthusiastic about doing anything other than recover.

Some players have begun referring to the outdoor common area in the Edmonton bubble as “the prison yard.” It is a cement courtyard with a bunch of socially distanced picnic tables, a Tim Horton’s truck and a basketball hoop. It doesn’t help that the Edmonton team hotels are connected to the arena through tunnels, so players can go an entire day without seeing the sun.

Says a prominent NHL agent: “Anyone with just a hint of anxiety or depression through normal times is being exacerbated by the isolation of being in the bubble, not being able to be with loved ones and not being able to get out and do things.”

Players who have left the bubble say that reuniting with their families was overwhelming. Just check out this video, posted by Golden Knights defenseman Jon Merrill‘s wife, Jessica:

“I just wish people realized what an incredible sacrifice so many people have made to put on these playoffs,” Meg Dowling says. “These guys are chasing their goal of winning a Stanley Cup with their brothers, their teammates; this is what every kid has dreamed of doing. It’s really admirable, and they’re happy for the opportunity. But they also had to leave their loved ones behind, and miss out on a lot of life moments. And it’s OK for them to feel sad about that.”


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



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.”



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



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



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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