About a half an hour after hockey games at Capital One Arena, the long cinder block hallways at ice level are barren and quiet — except for a wood and flat-screen paneled room tucked in a corner next to an industrial elevator. It’s the Capitals’ family lounge and a communal gathering spot after games, where the players’ families and friends can head up to the lower seating bowl to watch.
When the 2020 National Hockey League playoffs begin, however, temperature checks and isolation will replace friendly waves and hugs. Instead of getting into their cars to drive down Constitution Avenue after games, players and team personnel must stay in the the NHL’s “Phase 4 Secure Zone” in one of the NHL’s hub cities, in the Capitals’ case Toronto.
The league protocol that players and staff must adhere to stretches on for 28 pages. But like all of us, the Capitals have gotten used to a new way of life during the global COVID-19 pandemic.
“Hockey is not the most important thing,” forward Ilya Kovalchuk said Wednesday. “The most important is the heath of the people, and the families that you’re close with.”
The Stanley Cup Final could stretch into October, meaning the Capitals will spend up to three months away from their families — much longer than their typical road trips lasting no more than a week or two. That reality is more acute for a couple of Capitals players who will be facing a complicated summer and fall that goes beyond playing a string of three-hour, make-or-break games.
Forwards Lars Eller and Carl Hagelin are both adding additions to their family roster in the coming weeks. Eller’s wife Julie is due to give birth to the couple’s second child on August 8, same day as the Capitals’ last game in the NHL’s round-robin tournament. Three days later, the puck drops for the first round of playoffs, though childbirth follows a more uncertain schedule than the dates of NBC’s telecasts.
Hagelin, whose wife is due to give birth in September, said he hasn’t thought much that far in advance — after all, the Capitals could be back inside the Beltway rather than inside the NHL’s bubble if Washington’s Stanley Cup aspirations do not go as planned.
“As long as you come back when the kid is born, you’re welcome to leave,” Hagelin says his wife told him.
According to league protocol, players are allowed to leave the team bubble for significant family events. Still, questions remain regarding travel restrictions and testing — and most relevant to the Capitals, Eller and Hagelin’s ability to stay in the lineup. Even if the players did not face any unexpected delays during their return to Canada, they would have to isolate themselves and test negative for COVID-19 for four consecutive days before they can return to the team.
“You’re going to have to take a lot of precautions for when you leave,” Eller said. “We’re working on trying to figure out how we do that the best possible way.”
During the Capitals’ ongoing training camp in Arlington, the precautions are taken just as seriously as they will be on the road. With stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions in place, some players have spent quality time with their families before a journey with no concrete ending.
“I have four kids at home, so it was easy for me,” Kovalchuk said. “It’s no days off for our family.”