EDMONTON - Blake Comeau and the Dallas Stars knew there would be the huge sacrifice of being away from their families once inside the NHL bubble, and those absences have only been amplified by monotonous gaps with little to do between playing games pretty much every other day.
“We said from the start of it, the way to make it worthwhile was coming home with the Stanley Cup,” Comeau said Wednesday.
After 8 1/2 weeks in Edmonton, Alberta, while staying in a hotel connected to the arena where they play, the Stars are now waiting to find out if they will play Tampa Bay or the New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup Final.
“There’s no other place we’d rather be, especially now that we’re in the finals, than right here,” interim head coach Rick Bowness said. “Is this easy living? Absolutely not. ... We’re all making the best of it.”
Still, the Western Conference champions wish their families could be with them to share in the playoff run — an experience taken away because of the lingering pandemic.
Whether it’s a player like Comeau, in his 14th NHL season with his sixth team and in his first Stanley Cup Final. Or the 65-year-old Bowness, an NHL coach in parts of five different decades and now in his first Stanley Cup as a head coach.
“That’s probably one of the toughest parts,” Comeau said. “You’d love to have your family here to celebrate with you, but we don’t. So hopefully we can win the Stanley Cup and we can celebrate after. “
There have been lots of phone calls and FaceTime chats with family, but the Stars as a group have also gotten encouragement for home. Bowness said the wives, kids and other family members of players and staff were asked to send in personal video messages that have been shared with the entire team.
“When we’re all sitting together, you miss your family, but it’s a reminder, ‘OK, we’re making unreal sacrifices here.’ Every night we’re looking at those, and they are personal,” Bowness said. “It also keeps their families involved and makes them feel part of it. ... It’s important that we make them feel part of what we’re doing, because we know the sacrifices they’re making for us.”
The players themselves have had plenty of time to bond together, playing cards, eating meals and hanging out in a team lounge together between games. A golf outing Tuesday, the day after wrapping up the Western Conference Final in five games over top-seeded Vegas, was a rare venture outside since getting to Canada.
They are in their largest gap between games since the season resumed, either four or six days.
The Stanley Cup will start Saturday or Monday, depending on if the Lightning wrap up the Eastern Conference Final in Game 6 on Thursday night, or if New York extends the series to a full seven games.
Their 3-2 overtime clincher over Vegas on Monday night, which got the Stars to their first Stanley Cup Final since 2000, was their 21st game in 45 days. That includes the round-robin play among the conference’s top four seeds before winning best-of-seven series over Calgary, Colorado and the Golden Knights.
“It’s great to have a couple of days off and get well rested before the finals start,” said 21-year-old defenceman Miro Heiskanen, their leading scorer this post-season with 22 points (seven goals, 15 assists).
Bowness put his team through a rare bubble practice Wednesday, and plans another one Friday — after another off-ice group activity Thursday.
The Stars had already been inside the bubble for nearly four weeks when they ended their first-round series against Calgary with six games in 10 days. The day after advancing, there was mandated team outing to Edmonton’s football stadium, where players were together in the sunshine with Frisbees and soccer balls.
That was also when they found out that they would play Game 1 of their second-round series against Colorado the next day. The series against the Avalanche then ended with a Game 7 on a Friday afternoon, with puck drop determined less than 24 hours before win-or-go-home game.
“We’ve been here for so long and we’ve all kind of been into the routine that we’re in,” Comeau said of the bubble life. “I guess you could kind of look at it in a way as when you were younger, going to tournaments. ... Spending a lot of time together as a team. And we’ve really bonded.”
Without playing mini-stick games in the hallway — and with a much bigger trophy to try to win.