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For the N.H.L. Bubble to Succeed, Everyone Had to Be Flexible

EDMONTON, Alberta — With the presentation of the Stanley Cup just days away, the N.H.L. will soon be able to take a victory lap for being the first of the four major North American pro sports leagues to complete a season during the coronavirus pandemic.

The quality of the hockey has been solid, and the safety protocols have held, but an adaptable mind-set for all parties, from top executives to stadium workers, has been crucial for the expanded, 24-team postseason to work.

Take Assunta Marozzi, who operates Fantasia Caffé and Catering in Edmonton, one of the two cities the N.H.L. used for its season restart. Her storefront location has been closed since coronavirus restrictions were introduced in Alberta in March, but her food truck has been operating inside the N.H.L.’s so-called bubble since late July, providing locally made gelato, specialty coffees and a menu of Italian-inspired dishes and daily international specials.

The Fantasia staffers who enter the bubble each day, usually three to five, have had to be cautious: When they arrive, they each go through a temperature check, fill out a symptom survey and deliver a negative coronavirus test.

But they have had to be nimble, too: Marozzi noticed that as more teams headed home after elimination and more league staffers arrived from Toronto — home to the second N.H.L. site — and other locations, her clientele’s tastes shifted.

“There were a lot more players in the initial phase, so we were tailoring to the athlete,” Marozzi said. “More salads and high-protein snacks. Now, with more teams departed, the demographic changes. We’ve adapted and been giving different types of specials.”

While the 24/7 bubble residents — players, team and league staff members, and medical officers, all labeled Category 1 or Category 2 participants — are literally fenced inside a “secure zone” that includes two hotels and the arena in Edmonton, others, like Marozzi and her team, live off-site and enter the bubble to work. They are considered Category 3 and 4 — staffers who have limited contact with players, including hotel housekeeping staff, security officers, ice crew members and others.

Updated 2020-09-25T10:45:48.558Z

Canada’s lower overall rate of coronavirus infections was the primary reason the N.H.L. decided to set up its hub cities in Edmonton and Toronto. All told, 4,649 confirmed cases had been recorded in the Edmonton region through Tuesday. A handful of those were among Category 3 and 4 workers.

“Some of their duties would bring them into contact, but generally not close contact with any of the Category 1s or Category 2s,” Bill Daly, the N.H.L. deputy commissioner, said last week. “They’re tested every day and we have had a small number of those people test positive. I think our number is seven, over the course of seven weeks since we came in the bubble.”

ImageWorkers like bus drivers filtered in and out of the sites.
Credit…Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

Daly’s normal playoff routine has been disrupted, too. Usually, he and Commissioner Gary Bettman travel from series to series, taking in games. This year, they stayed close to their New York City home bases for much of the postseason because of the Canadian government’s quarantine requirements.

To be able to get on the ice last week in time to hand out the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl to the Western Conference champion Dallas Stars and the Prince of Wales Trophy to the Eastern Conference-winning Tampa Bay Lightning, Daly went through a process that echoed the protocols for players when they first moved to Toronto and Edmonton in late July.

Before boarding a private flight to Edmonton with some other league staffers, Daly had to produce three negative tests during a seven-day period of home isolation. After touching down, he quarantined in his hotel room for four days, delivering a negative test each day. Only then could he integrate into the bubble.

Bettman did the same, and he’ll be on the ice to present the Conn Smythe Trophy to the most valuable player of the playoffs and hand the Stanley Cup to the winning team’s captain (Tampa Bay leads the series two games to one). In an empty Rogers Place, however, he won’t hear the usual chorus of boos from fans that has become tradition.

Players and their families have also had to adapt to travel restrictions that ended up being much more strict than originally anticipated in early July. At the time, the return-to-play plan included provisions for family members to join players, beginning with the conference finals. On Sept. 11, the Dallas Stars posted a video on social media of the journeyman forward Justin Dowling reuniting with his wife, Meg, and their five-and-a-half-month-old baby, Perri, after they drove nearly 200 miles from their home in Cochrane, Alberta.

Nearly a week later, Meg and Perri were still the only family members on site.

Two days before the finals began, government authorities had yet to grant permission for family members from outside Canada to enter.

“They heard us out, they listened to us, they complimented us on the procedures and protocols that we have developed and certainly the experience, the success we’ve had,” Daly said. “They haven’t said no yet, but obviously, at this point in time, it becomes difficult to execute.

“It may be that the clock simply runs out before we get an answer.”

Credit…Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

For Corey Perry, who is seeking his second Stanley Cup ring as a 35-year-old veteran winger for the Stars, not being surrounded by family is a stark difference from 2007, when he won a championship as a rookie with the Anaheim Ducks.

“My first time in the final, we played Ottawa,” he said on a video call with reporters before the finals. “Pretty much three-quarters of my family is from Ottawa, so when we went there, there was a lot of people to see after the game.”

Perry’s only family this time around will be his wife, who arrived in Edmonton on Saturday and was scheduled to complete her quarantine on Wednesday. He said he was expecting to see her for the first time after Game 3. But he has appreciated other aspects of the tournament.

“It’s obviously a little different than traveling back and forth across the country, that five-and-a-half, six-hour plane ride to get to Ottawa and back to California,” he said.

“Everything’s right here. It’s just a matter of going out and playing hockey.”

Adaptability has also been imperative for the broadcasters covering the tournament.

Sportsnet, the N.H.L.’s Canadian broadcast rights holder, chose to keep its broadcast crew outside the bubble. That has led to some challenges for the reporter Kyle Bukauskas, who normally conducts player interviews rinkside before games and during intermissions.

“When you’re able to stand next to the person, maybe you get a better sense of their body language, or just a little more connection,” he said.

Bukauskas spent the first part of the restart in Toronto, where he was stationed multiple levels above the ice and could communicate with players only through a speaker. His setup is a little better in Edmonton, where he’s able to make eye contact through a monitor.

For Jackie Redmond of N.H.L. Network, the Stanley Cup finals usually mean setting up outside arenas, interacting with fans and celebrity guests. Already in Canada at her Nova Scotia home after the season was paused, Redmond was asked this year to report from Toronto and Edmonton on top of her regular hosting duties.

“Reporting, in the traditional sense, is not my background at all,” she said. But she has embraced a mantra that was repeated regularly by Islanders Coach Barry Trotz during his team’s playoff run.

“Get comfortable being uncomfortable,” she said, with a laugh. “That is me. The last seven weeks, I feel like I started a new job. But it’s been awesome.”

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