Rick Bowness has put on a brave face as a coronavirus outbreak has wreaked havoc on the Dallas Stars’ training camp and put their roster in flux.
Seventeen players from the Stars, including four of their top six defencemen, returned positive COVID-19 tests this week. The NHL said most of the players who tested positive are asymptomatic and all are recovering without complication. But the upsurge forced the cancellation of four days of training camp and pushed back the start of their regular season to Jan. 19 at the earliest.
“S--- happens and you got to roll with it and deal with the hand that you’re dealt with,” said Halifax’s Bowness, entering his second season as head coach of the Stars.
“When you’re dealing with a lot of unknowns, as we are with COVID, we have to prepare to change and adjust day to day. We usually put out a weekly schedule, telling everybody exactly what we are doing. But at the top of the page, it reads, ‘subject to change on a daily basis.’
“We teach our players just to roll with the punches. Whatever happens we’re going to deal with it. The guys were in great shape and great frame of mind. Now we’re starting all over again. The difference is we have half of our team out with COVID for at least a week. We had to change our whole practice plan because we had it set up for scrimmages but now, we don’t have enough bodies to do that.
“But we have to have an open mind and be ready for change, which we’ve done. This is something we haven’t dealt with before. So, we just say, ‘OK, now we adjust.’”
In a season already filled with moving parts and uncertainties, the Stars initially postponed their first three games of their season – two at the Florida Panthers and a Stanley Cup final rematch at Tampa Bay on Sunday – after six Dallas players and two staff members tested positive for COVID-19 last week.
It’s possible the Stars’ game at the Lightning on Tuesday could also be postponed and Dallas’s season debut could be pushed back to Jan. 22 at home against the Nashville Predators.
Bowness said that the team took all the necessary precautions to be protected from the threat of COVID-19. Video sessions are done in wide-open spaces with proper social distancing. All personnel wear a mask in the dressing room. The only time players don’t wear a mask is on the ice and during off-ice conditioning.
“We took every precaution we could and we still have it,” Bowness said matter-of-factly.
“I would be shocked if we’re the only team that this happens to over the course of the next four months. I know the NBA had to cancel some games. This is a moving target, man. It’ll be constant adjusting of your roster, your lines, your special teams, everything is going to be a constant change. As coaches you just have to prepare the team as best as you can and be ready to go.”
Bowness, who turns 66 on Jan. 25, said he’s stayed healthy during the outbreak.
He even returned to his home in Grand Lake for 16 days in November.
“It was my first time back in Halifax in November since I was 16 years old,” he said. “I went away to play junior hockey when I was 16 and never was back for a November since.
“But I feel great,” he added. “I wear a mask on the ice and in all of the meetings. At my age I have to take extra precautions. I’ve been fortunate to stay away from this thing.”
Bowness has coached more games than anyone in NHL history but the Stanley Cup has become an elusive brass ring. He has been to four league finals as a coach but has yet to raise the Stanley Cup.
The Stars lost in six games to the Lightning in the 2020 final in Edmonton, one of two Canadian hub cities (Toronto was the other) to host the two-month NHL post-season tournament bubble.
For the 2021 campaign, the 31 NHL teams have been realigned in four new divisions and each team will play a 56-game schedule against teams only in its division. The Stars have been placed in the Central Division with the Lightning, Panthers, Predators, Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings.
With a condensed season, there’s less margin for error. Rescheduling games could be a headache with teams basically scheduled to play every other day.
We took every precaution we could and we still have it. I would be shocked if we’re the only team that this happens to over the course of the next four months. I know the NBA had to cancel some games. This is a moving target, man.
Dallas is already without star forward Tyler Seguin and No. 1 netminder Ben Bishop, who are both recovering from off-season surgeries. Still, Bowness is eager to get the season going and build upon the momentum gained from a playoff run which saw the Stars come within two wins from capturing the Stanley Cup.
“We’re going to miss Bishop and Seguin, but as long as we can stay healthy, we can continue to where we left off,” said Bowness, who was hired by the Stars in June 2018 and became head coach in December 2019 after the team fired Jim Montgomery.
“When we had scrimmages during those first few days of training camp, you can see the things we worked on in July was coming back to them. We’re very confident in the team. But the biggest thing for everyone, you have to stay healthy. It will come down to that.
“This season will be like the 1980s when you had to get out of your division to move on in the playoffs. All of our games are divisional games, all four-pointers. So, it’s a totally different format. It’s going to be interesting to see how this whole thing unfolds.
“The team that can stay the healthy has the best chance of making the playoffs. But we can’t go into the season thinking we have an automatic berth in the playoffs. That would be a big mistake.”
The 2020 playoff bubble proved to be a success. The league crowned a champion and players were tested for COVID-19 each day with zero cases reported. But the isolation and being away from families took an emotional toll.
Bowness, who likes to spend his summers golfing at Oakfield or gardening at his Grand Lake home, didn’t hide his criticism of life in the NHL playoff bubble.
“I’m not going to miss one thing about it,” Bowness said in an interview in October. “I didn’t walk on grass for nine weeks. The highlight of your day was to walk across this cement court to get a Tim Hortons coffee.”
Bowness admits the division bubbles for the 2021 season will not be as safe as the bubble in Edmonton.
“We’re going to have to be cognizant of that because we will be walking through lobbies and be on elevators with people that are also staying at the hotel,” he said. “In Edmonton, the only people in these hotels were NHL people.
“Every team that comes into Dallas will stay at the same hotel. And every city we go into in our division will stay at the same hotel as everyone will be staying at. They will quarantine 2-3 floors for the NHL teams. The only meals we’ll have will be in our rooms or in the suite they will provide for each team. We can’t go into any restaurants or bars or coffee shops. We’re restricted to what we can do when we’re on the road and that’s fine. No one will be going out.
“They will protect us the best that they can and we’ll educate the players the best that we can.”