For nearly two months, the National Hockey League has kept the teams in its postseason tournament inside "bubbles" that it helped construct with the NHL Players' Association in an effort to safely finish the 2019-20 season after it was paused because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Initially there were two: The 12 teams from the Eastern Conference were housed in Toronto, with two hotels in proximity to Scotiabank Arena, and the 12 teams from the Western Conference were in Edmonton, Alberta, with two hotels near Rogers Place. For the conference finals and Stanley Cup Final, all teams were in Edmonton.
Life for the players inside these bubbles has been a mystery. We know they're tested for COVID-19 each day, and through eight weeks and 32,374 tests, there has yet to be a confirmed positive case. We know there are some amenities for them to use away from the rink. But with no independent media in the bubble -- and with candid comments about the emotional strain of this experiment far too infrequent -- many of us don't have a sense of how players have handled this unprecedented experience -- until now, that is.
"We love playing this sport, and I don't think there is one guy who wasn't appreciative for the chance to win the Cup this summer," one Western Conference player said. "But also, I don't think a lot of fans realize what an emotional toll the bubble took on some guys -- the isolation, the grind, being away from our families and loved ones during a really stressful time to begin with. To be honest, after the first few days, I noticed a lot of guys were more down than they usually are. Some guys were legitimately sad. It's not easy living like that for two months."
ESPN debriefed with nine players -- five from the Western Conference and four from the Eastern Conference -- who, on the condition of anonymity, answered dozens of questions about what life was really like inside the bubble, from playing in empty buildings to being trapped in hotels to food, drinking and drugs.
It's the NHL bubble confidential.
'I almost felt too secure'
There's one thing players unequivocally say about their experience in the bubble: They felt safe.
"Security was very tight," one Western Conference player said. "For all the guys that were questioning how safe it would be, that quickly went away. It was one of the safest places you could be. They were constantly checking your credentials, constantly checking our Clear App, constant security. In that sense, they did a really good job."
One Eastern Conference player said the testing made him feel "at ease," which was reinforced by "mask police everywhere" inside the bubble.
Another Eastern Conference veteran said mask culture, which was prevalent, was about "internal respect" as well as "optics."
"When you're at the rink, they're taking pictures of you walking in and walking around. If you're walking around with no mask on, that's not sending the right vibe," the player said. "Yeah, it was annoying. But we're still representing kids that are watching it. All a kid has to say is, 'Hey, Auston Matthews isn't wearing a mask to the rink, so I don't have to.'"
The uniform praise of the bubbles' safety seems warranted, given the results for the NHL and the NHLPA. "I mean, there are zero cases, and that is so impressive, considering everything going on and all the moving parts," an Eastern Conference veteran said. "You can complain about everything else, but the NHL should be really proud of themselves for that last that part."