In a normal year, former Mount St. Charles and Philadelphia Flyers goalie Brian Boucher would be in the middle of an extended break from hockey.
This isn’t a normal year.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL season was stopped on March 12, but starting Saturday in Toronto, Boucher is about to consume more hockey than he ever has in his life. The NHL will begin its 24-team playoff format with four playoff series and a seeding tournament in each of its two bubbles, which means Boucher will be very busy from his spot inside the glass at Scotiabank Arena.
“It’s going to be a grind to do all these series, but the good news is I don’t have to travel, which is what I use to do when I was covering multiple series,” Boucher said from his hotel room in Toronto Thursday afternoon. “Traveling can take a lot out of you, so the saving grace here is I’m in one hotel and I can unpack and treat it like home.
“Look, it’s a lot of information to absorb with covering six teams in one day and then a quick turnaround with not a lot of time in between games. It’s going to be crazy and unique and a once-in-a-lifetime experience – at least we hope it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Boucher, who is working with John Forslund in the arena and other broadcasters who are calling games off monitors from NBC Sports studios in Stamford, Connecticut, called a pair of exhibition games on Wednesday and will begin calling playoff games on Saturday. The challenge for Boucher and the rest of the on-air crew is adjusting to the new production reality.
Instead of NBC producing the game, there is a world feed being beamed around the world and Boucher has to be on his toes to break down replays he has no idea are coming.
“We’re just going to roll with the punches, embrace it and do the best we can,” said the Woonsocket native. “At the end of the day it’s about reacting to what you see on the ice. The broadcast is going to be a little different and the replays are going to be more generic. I’m just going to analyze the game the best I can and we’ll get to a point soon where we’re down to two games a day and it will feel more normal.”
Because his job is to be inside the glass, Boucher’s job would be pointless if he wasn’t on location providing fans with insights just feet from the action. The decision to go into the bubble for over two months wasn’t a difficult one for Boucher, who lives in suburban Philadelphia, but it meant he had to miss his daughter Brianna’s 16th birthday party on July 27.
“The decision to come to the bubble wasn’t hard because my job is my job so when work calls you have to do it,” Boucher said. “I felt all along the NHL had the safety protocols in place and testing was going to done right, so it was an easy decision. Now, it’s unfortunate because I’ve never been away from my family this time of year, so I’ve never missed my daughter’s birthday and that’s a bummer. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.”
In early July Boucher passed three COVID-19 tests before he caught a charter flight from Newark Liberty International Airport to Toronto Pearson International and since then he’s been sequestered in the Fairmount Royal York Hotel, which sits just across Front Street from Scotiabank Arena. The NHL is also using Hotel X, which is located on Lake Ontario, and busing teams the two miles to the arena.
Boucher and the rest of the league uses a tunnel that runs under Union Station to access the arena so they never have to interact with the public. There are also fences around the hotel to keep the league separated from the general public.
“Because the hotel is in the middle of the city, we really don’t have a lot of outdoor spaces, but there are a couple of outdoor sitting areas,” Boucher said. “You can not leave, there’s no possible way a player could leave the bubble. As far as being in a bubble and feeling safe, I feel 100 percent safe.”
Boucher said everyone in the bubble is tested every day and that it’s “efficient and organized.” There’s also a temperature check using a CLEAR kiosk.
While Boucher is allowed in the arena because he’s in the bubble, there will be no fans at games in Toronto and Edmonton, which makes it incumbent upon players and coaches to create their own energy. In the three exhibition games he’s seen so far, Boucher said it’s hard to draw too many conclusions when it comes to the level of energy and intensity.
In the first game he called on Tuesday between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the game felt like a scrimmage, but the intensity ratcheted up Wednesday when Carolina and 2018 Stanley Cup champion Washington met for their only scrimmage game.
“The Carolina and Washington game felt a lot like a regular-season game with the physicality and emotion,” Boucher said. “It’s been all over the place, but I think the players are doing their best because they realize there’s only one tune-up game before it all gets real. It’s a unique environment because there’s no energy from the crowd and no buzz downstairs. It’s definitely weird, but I’m encouraged from what I’ve seen in the games live.”
The team with the best record when the season stopped, the reigning Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins, played their only exhibition game Thursday night against Columbus in Toronto. The Bruins were the heavy favorite to win the Presidents’ Trophy when the season stopped, but now they have to battle Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Washington for the No. 1 seed.
A number of Boston’s best players – Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Tuuka Rask – are on the wrong side of 30, which means the break might’ve been a blessing in disguise.
“I don’t know how much the No. 1 seed matters in this situation, but I think the Bruins are one of the top teams in the East and a team people are worried about,” Boucher said. “I could say the same probably six or seven other teams. It’s so hard to handicap because I don’t know who’s going to get to their A-game when it matters on Saturday.”
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