No Trouble in the Bubble

The USHL's Waterloo Black Hawks are sequestering in a hotel NHL-style for training camp.
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Matt Argentina. Courtesy of Stephanie Lyn Photography.

Matt Argentina. Courtesy of Stephanie Lyn Photography.

The news surrounding Covid-19 and the hockey world has not been good this week. The QMJHL is running into major issues in Quebec, with 18 members of the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada infected and now eight members of the Sherbrooke Phoenix as well. Over in Europe, the Czech League is stopping for two weeks as pandemic cases have flared up in that nation.

With every new development, the Waterloo Black Hawks' decision to put their players into a bubble for the first seven days of training camp looks more and more prudent.

Since last Thursday, the USHL team has been sequestered away at the Courtyard Marriott across from their arena in Iowa.

"It's been really challenging from a logistics perspective, but it's been a really good run-through for what we'll have to try to do for the season," said president and coach P.K. O'Handley. "And it's one more layer for our billets, too - we're trying to give them a level of comfort that our players understand what's going on and what they have to do to keep everybody safe, the best we can."

Everyone who entered the bubble was tested 72 hours before arrival and then again upon arrival at the hotel (all tests were negative). There are two kids per room and since the hotel is basically empty, the players can get together in common areas to play spike-ball or hang out. And since this is training camp, they're also on the ice twice a day at the rink.

"Our owners and our organization have always put the players first, from their development to their safety," O'Handley said. "This is a way different time and we thought with this age group, from a team-building opportunity, a safety opportunity and a standards opportunity after we break our bubble, maybe we can mitigate this crazy thing."

And what do the players think of the gambit?

"It's going great so far, no complaints at all," said center Matt Argentina, a prospect for the 2021 NHL draft. "We're going hard on the skates, but we're getting good rest and good food. It's a little different than normal, but it's good."

In their down time, some kids are playing cards, some are playing video games and others are just keeping things low-key. The fact Waterloo is in the process of cutting down its roster to 25 players lends some real-world tension to the proceedings as well.

Of course, the real challenge comes once the bubble is popped. The USHL is scheduled to begin its season on Nov. 5 with a "regional" schedule that will curtail travel - though as O'Handley jokes, his team has a pretty big region. The Hawks will not play eastern teams such as Youngstown, Muskegon or the Michigan-based U.S. NTDP, however, while two other franchises - Cedar Rapids and Madison - have suspended operations for the year.

When Waterloo does hit the road, the team plans on eating on the bus a lot and avoiding hotel restaurants unless they can be sure they're the only diners at the time. There will be a lot of communication with hotels on safety measures and the Hawks plan on sending an advance team to road arenas to make sure their own protocols are being followed for dressing rooms and the like.

With a roster full of teenagers, hammering home safety measures when the players are not with the team is just as important.

"We've talked about no dining at a restaurant," O'Handley said. "We prefer delivery versus pickup, convenience stores are not an option, you're going to have to be more organized with snacks and so forth. No more than four players at a billet house for a visit and when you have to get gas for your car, you wear a mask and wash your hands. They're still young men. We hope not, but somebody could make a mistake and get it. Hopefully they have enough protocols in their brain now that we can get to a season, which is what they all want to do."

In the USHL, every season is crucial. Rookies need to find their sea legs, while many second-year players like Argentina have the NHL draft to think about. Third-year players are trying to get ready for the leap to the NCAA. The bubble adds at least a good start to what will be a very different campaign.

"It seems to be the new norm nowadays," Argentina said. "I'm just happy they found a way for all the players to get on the ice, get some workouts in and just be together as a team."

And if the kids can come out of the bubble with strong bonds and a heightened sense of discipline, then a clean bill of health wasn't the only benefit.

"We asked them to embrace it, we asked them to pay attention and they've been doing it," O'Handley said. "I give them full marks."

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