The Boston Bruins lost in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final last year and returned this (abbreviated) regular season to post the best record in the league. They were very much a title contender, a mostly veteran group with everything to play for.
Yet on Saturday, just two hours before Game 3 of an opening-round series with Carolina, their starting goalie, Tuukka Rask, announced he was leaving the team and the league’s Toronto-based bubble anyway.
Just like that, Boston’s Cup chances took a massive hit because of the mental and emotional challenges unique to playing an entire playoff while quarantined and away from home and family.
“I want to be with my teammates competing, but at this moment there are things more important than hockey in my life, and that’s being with my family,” Rask said in a statement. “I want to thank the Bruins and my teammates for their support and wish them success.”
Rask is 33 years old and has been with Boston since 2007. He and his wife have three children, including a daughter born in April. It was apparent in Rask’s public comments this week, and the Bruins say his private ones, that life inside the bubble and away from the children was grinding on him.
In the end, it was too much.
“They’re going to have their dad back,” said Boston general manager Don Sweeney, who noted that there were no family emergencies. “Tuukka was having a tough time being away in this environment … the priorities are in order. This is what he had to do at this time.”
This is why anyone who suggested that the 2020 Stanley Cup or NBA champion should have an asterisk attached to the accomplishment has had it all wrong.
It should have an exclamation point.
This isn’t just the normal physical, mental and emotional grind that the lengthy playoffs of basketball and hockey usually provide. This is all of that on steroids. This is harder.
What each league is attempting is perhaps the only way to stage a championship during a pandemic. The bubbles have proven incredibly successful at keeping the coronavirus at bay. It comes with a cost though, and not just the tens of millions of dollars in setting it up.
This is a human physiological experiment. Isolation amid the normal desperation of a championship chase. No one can truly know the impact.
The leagues have done almost all they can to keep players comfortable. No one is going to equate living in a nice hotel featuring as many entertainment distractions as possible with what millions of regular workers go through. This isn’t a military tour of duty or a stretch out on a fishing boat or an oil rig. It’s not even lengthy business travel for project managers or salespeople or anyone else. This is pro hockey and pro basketball. Millions are earned. Fame is generated.
It doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Nearly everyone who has had to work away from their family, particularly one with young children, let alone a newborn, understands the struggle. Two weeks can feel like two years. The prospect of two months, and without the ability to even leave the bubble and find additional normalities in life, well, it clearly can be too much.
Rask certainly isn’t the only NHL or NBA player who has considered leaving the bubble, even if a championship is a possibility. Whether others follow over roughly the next two months of competition is the question.
If you are a team in either league, you might want to double your efforts at working with players to ease the situation. If Boston can lose its starting goaltender, then anyone can lose anything.
Organizations, coaches, fans and teammates can be frustrated, but working is a choice. Rask didn’t have to opt in and always had the right to opt out.
Besides, a player who isn’t 100 percent bought in for a playoff run is probably not one you want to count on.
Rask is a terrific talent, but he complained about the lack of atmosphere during the games (“dull”) and said this felt more like “playing an exhibition game.” He hadn’t cost Boston any playoff games yet, but his .889 save percentage wasn’t up to par either.
Both leagues are allowing family visits into the bubble. Maybe that will help. Either way, this isn’t going to be easy, and with each successive day in an unnatural and controlled environment, no one really knows what to expect.
Trying to win a championship is already stressful enough. There is a reason every team employs sports psychologists. The mental performance has to be there. Players have to rise up without the intensity of crowds, without the normal rhythm of life, without their friends and families to offer that unconditional support after games.
No one knows how that will impact decisions big or small, but a star player just left a team with clear title aspirations. You rarely, if ever, see something like that.
It’s why these 2020 NBA and NHL championships may be the hardest to win of them all.
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