Some people believe there’s no greater challenge in sports than trying to win the Stanley Cup.
That task is even more difficult this season.
Teams might not have to deal with the travel and playing in hostile enemy territory this season, but the COVID-19 pandemic presents other undeniable hurdles to clear in the quest for the Cup.
The remaining clubs are doing their best to adjust on the fly and make the most of the opportunity, but the realities are harsh. Players are trying to ramp up their bodies for playoff-style hockey after a four-month pause. Playing games in an empty arena unquestionably leads to an environment that’s awkward at best.
The biggest test, though, is just living in a hotel for weeks on end. For the team that ultimately does skate away with the Cup, they’ll have spent two months away from home. That obviously wears on players — and coaches.
“That’s the biggest thing that’s probably not getting talked out about enough,” Carolina Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour told reporters Monday after his team’s morning skate. “I think it’s the thing that wasn’t talked about enough when the format came out. It sounded all great four months ago just to get back to playing. For me, this was going to be the biggest challenge. Everybody wants to play. We’d play on the street if we had to. Everybody. And everyone’s dealing with the same, but it’s not even the players. You’ve got the media, everyone in here, they feel it. It’s a long time to be away. We’ve been away three weeks, and we’ve played three playoff games.”
It’s different for everyone, of course. Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said he’s been using some of the extra time to, well, watch hockey. He and his staff have hunkered down and not only watched plenty of film, but he said he’s also watching a lot of the other Eastern Conference games. However, even Cassidy said it sometimes is a bit much, with the Western Conference games serving as background noise for a game of cards.
Cassidy acknowledged, however, things are different for everyone, especially players.
“I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve certainly tried to fill my days accordingly,” Cassidy told reporters Monday. “Everyone’s different. I think for the players it’s most difficult. As coaches, we tend to watch a lot of video this time of year anwyay, so we’re really invested in hockey, whereas players — rightfully so — try to get away from it after a game or practice to clear their minds.”
When the NHL announced its return-to-play efforts, there was a natural question about whether such a unique playoff format might lead to an asterisk next to the Stanley Cup-winning team’s name in the record books. If that is the case, that asterisk should be seen as a badge of honor that elevates this year’s champion because that team will have gone through a physically and emotionally grueling journey never seen before in the sport.
“Guys are feeling it. It’s a long road,” Brind’Amour said. “The team that can hunker down the best and mentally channel all your positive energy to why we’re here is probably the team that’s going to be able to hoist the Cup when it’s all done.”
The Bruins and Hurricanes play Game 4 of their first-round series Monday night at 8 p.m. ET. That game can be seen on NESN with pregame coverage beginning at 7.