Life in the Bubble

A look inside the NHL bubble from the perspective of Northeastern alumni.

By Sarah Olender

In late June, Matt Benning, defenseman for the Nashville Predators and a Northeastern alumnus, had a son. A few weeks later, he left his newborn and entered the National Hockey League bubble, which could have potentially kept him from seeing his son for over two months. 

“For me, it was a tease,” Benning said. He lives in Edmonton, Canada, and even though he was a few minutes away from his family, he struggled with homesickness. “At the time I had a three-four-week-old son and I couldn’t go home to see him even though he was 10 minutes down the road.”

Leaving family is always tough, but leaving in the middle of a pandemic to enter an isolated bubble is uncharted territory. 

“It’s definitely hard, there’s guys in tough situations,” Benning said. “There are a few guys who had kids. No matter what age, it’s tough to leave your kids because family means everything to many players.”

But most players didn’t want to turn down the opportunity to fight for the Stanley Cup, an opportunity that many had thought would be taken away due to COVID-19. 

“It’s the most exciting time of the year,” Benning said. “We knew we weren’t going to be there for four to five months.”

Despite the chaos of adapting to COVID-19, the NHL managed to create a safe, COVID-free  bubble for the Stanley Cup playoffs in two Canadian cities: Edmonton and Toronto. Each team, including the players and staff, were assigned a floor in a hotel so that the teams could isolate together.

Two of the most successful isolated professional sports bubbles were the NBA and the NHL, which both hosted Northeastern athletics alumni. 

Dylan Sikura, who was playing for the Chicago Blackhawks last season and is now a left wing for the Vegas Golden Knights, also wanted to be with family during this time. He originally left the U.S. to go back with his family in Canada. 

“There are silver linings,” Sikura said. “It brought me a lot closer to the older guys.”

Unlike the normal NHL season, where players return to their own homes with their families after a day at the rink, players in the bubble could only return to their hotels each night after games and practices. Since no one outside of the bubbles was allowed in, and vice versa, there were more opportunities for players to socialize with players on opposing teams and within their own teams.

Sikura, who played with Vancouver Canuck forward Adam Gaudette at Northeastern, felt lucky that he had the opportunity to reconnect with his former teammate. To Sikura and Benning, being in the bubble was like a hockey tournament. They travelled from the hotel to the rink and back, and when they weren’t playing, they got to hang out with their teammates and friends from opposing teams. 

There were other activities the players could do. According to Sikura, there were video games, ping pong, golf and more. 

“They definitely took care of us,” Benning said in agreement. He added, “I would’ve done it again. I thought it was really well done.”

The NHL and the NBA both found success with zero positive COVID cases in either bubble.

The NBA bubble was located in Walt Disney World, just outside of Orlando, Florida. They provided a “campus” for athletes to play, practice, eat and participate in regular activities, and the athletes were tested regularly.

On top of having to adjust to a new type of environment, in order to keep a true bubble of isolation, fans were not allowed in the arena to watch games. In the NHL, the stadium was covered to hide the absence of fans, and in the NBA screens were put up around the stadium where fans could buy a virtual seat and their faces would be broadcasted on a virtual seat in the stadium. 

In all sports, especially ones that aren’t hosting fans yet, fake crowd-cheering noises were played whenever goals were scored. In the NBA, recordings of fans shouting, “Defense!” were also played to emulate the energy of a game with a present audience. 

Especially in the playoffs, where the fans are stereotypically the most rowdy and energized, Benning admits that the absence of fans was noticeable and weird.

“Every game is do or die and the fans just bring something extra,” he said. Benning also added that he, “Prefer[s] the crowd, especially in the playoffs because everyone’s cheering and it gets the adrenaline going. That’s what the fun part of hockey is. It makes it fun.”

With the bubble environment over and the new NHL and NBA seasons starting without a bubble, but still without fans, the only certainty these alumni have is that the unprecedented times seem set to continue.