With much of the province in a pandemic 'red zone' and many of its teams idle, the QMJHL set up a mini-bubble in Quebec City recently. Seven teams were sequestered in the provincial capital, where they played six games each over 10 days at the Centre Videotron. Based on the worsening second wave of Covid-19, the 'Q' is already putting plans into place for more mini-bubbles in the New Year and another league is following suit.
The USPHL, an American junior league with a number of NCAA commits, will be decamping to Tampa in about a month for its own bubble, offering its teams 20 games while sequestered at a resort that will house the players . While the USHL and NAHL have been trucking along (with some postponements along the way), it feels like more bubbles are coming to developmental hockey. I've been told the OHL has not discussed a bubble yet, but perhaps it's because that league doesn't even plan on starting up until early February.
Nonetheless, the QMJHL has now provided a template. Players and staff isolated for 14 days before entering the bubble and they were tested three days prior to entrance. Everyone was tested five times during the event and the 'Q' did not have a single positive among 800 tests - so the gambit worked. So what was the key?
"The main thing is before the bubble," said Martin Lavallée, the QMJHL's assistant to the commissioner. "As soon as they were in the bubble, they respected all our directives and protocols. It was easier having them all together in the bubble, the main issue was before: to stay with their billet family, go to practice and come back without going anywhere else. When they're in, it's pretty easy."
All the teams ate their meals at the hotel and boredom wasn't really much of a problem thanks to the ice time and the fact players also had school duties.
"Some teams brought their own ping-pong tables and had tournaments," Lavallée said. "They also had their school sessions because all our players were still in school. The academic advisors prepared work to do and they were in touch with tutors and teachers in their home city. Almost every day they had school sessions of two to three hours."
One team that did not bring a ping-pong table was Shawinigan, but that's because the Cataractes were in a unique situation: they've been isolating together all season and used Quebec City as a chance to switch up their routine. Forecasting the pandemic's impact on the 2020-21 season, the team bought an apartment building back home and the players and coach have been living there full-time. There's a classroom for schooling, lounges for poker or PlayStation tournaments and a catering service that delivers all the team's meals (and the food is delivered when the team is at the rink, so there is no contact from the outsiders).
"So far we've had zero positive cases this year," said GM Martin Mondou. "And we're in the red zone, so that's good. The only thing we don't understand is the fact they didn't let us play, considering we had no external contacts."
Indeed, before the bubble, the Cataractes had only played four games - so Quebec City was a welcome addition to the schedule, especially since the league is now taking an extended break until the New Year.
"It was great," Mondou said. "We needed to play hockey and it was well-organized. The toughest thing is knowing we're not going to play (for awhile). Having your players practise is one thing, but when there's no dessert, no cake at the end - because they want to play games - it's tough."
As for the Cataractes apartment bubble, Mondou believes it was the right call for his players.
"They liked it until we stopped playing," he said. "From there it got tricky for us but we still think it was the best decision and to be honest, I think it's what we need to do to play hockey this year until the vaccine comes out."