It’s different, being inside the “bubble” for the National Hockey League playoffs, Kim Dillabaugh admits, but he’s impressed with how well the situation has been structured.
“They’ve done a pretty good job of coordinating as much as they can,” said the Duncan-born goalie coach for the Philadelphia Flyers. “It could be a lot worse. No complaints.
“Obviously you’re confined to certain areas. That’s what they have to do to make it work.”
The NHL’s bubble format, which has proven extremely successful so far, without a single positive test for COVID-19, restricts teams to their hotels and one arena in each hub city. Playing in Toronto, the Flyers also have access to BMO Field for outdoor training purposes.
Dillabaugh grew up in the Cowichan Valley before embarking on a major junior hockey career. He later coached with the Western Hockey League’s Kelowna Rockets and worked in goaltender development for the Los Angeles Kings before becoming the Flyer’s full-time goalie coach in 2015.
This is Dillabaugh’s third trip to the playoffs with the Flyers. The team earned a bye through the qualifying round by virtue of having the fourth-best regular-season record in the Eastern Conference, then earned the top seed in the first round by sweeping three games in a round robin between the top four teams in the conference over the first week of August.
The Flyers arrived in Toronto and entered the bubble on July 26, playing their first exhibition game on July 28 and starting round-robin play on Aug. 1. Dillabaugh’s team has been among the most successful in the early going. The Flyers’ next test will be a best-of-seven series against the Montreal Canadiens starting on Wednesday, Aug. 12.
“You never know what to expect coming off a lengthy layoff when not a lot of guys have had access to ice or have been limited in what they’ve had in terms of equipment for training,” he said. “But they got back in sync and got off to a great start. Hopefully they can build off that as we get ready for Montreal.”
Philadelphia goalies Carter Hart and Brian Elliott have been big parts of the team’s early success. They split work in the exhibition game, a 3-2 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, and combined to stop 73 of 76 saves in the three round-robin wins.
“Obviously the guys in front have done a good job of limiting the quality of work they’ve seen,” Dillabaugh said. “The goal is obviously to use this as a jumping point for hopefully a long playoff run.”
For Dillabaugh, being in the bubble means being away from his family: his wife Bonnie, also from Duncan, and his nine-year-old-daughter and three-year-old son.
“It’s tough,” he acknowledged. “Any time you’re away from your family for an extended period of time, it’s challenging for sure.”
It helps to be able to connect via FaceTime every day.
“They understand it’s a unique situation, a unique time,” Dillabaugh said. “And we’re making the best of it.”
The Dillabaughs maximized their time together during the layoff, knowing that they might end up separated for a lengthy period if the NHL season did resume in a bubble. They did consider coming back to the Cowichan Valley, but opted to stay in south New Jersey, where they live during the season.
Holding the playoffs without fans is a unique situation, and Dillabaugh admitted that it does trickle into the sport itself, as the players miss the crowds and the momentum that it brings. Generally, though it is business as usual once the puck drops.
“These are competitive athletes,” Dillabaugh pointed out. “They want to win; they want to have success. That will continue as teams move through the playoffs and on to their ultimate goal.”
The closest comparison to the bubble that Dillabaugh can come up with was the 2019 World Championships in Slovakia, which he attended with Team Canada, where teams did share hotels and crossed paths from time to time. As strange as it may be, Dillabaugh remains impressed with what the NHL was able to create.
“I’ve been in the playoffs before, but this is the first time seeing this,” he said. “They had a short time frame to come up with something safe for everybody. That was front and centre, to create an environment where everybody feels safe.”