A young hockey player's first out-of-town tournament is in many ways a rite of passage in the sport. It means the first time seeing players from other parts of the country or world and gauging where one's game stands against that of peers. It's hours on end at the rinks, parents nursing weak coffee in frigid bleachers, knee hockey in the hotel hallway, a whole lot of pizza, pool parties, bewildered hotel guests wondering where all these rowdy children came from and an exasperated staff that has all but given up on containing them.
As the years go on, the tournaments get more serious, and the stakes get higher. In Edmonton, the NHL is about to cap off its adult version of a seemingly never-ending hockey tournament. It has been more than 80 days in the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs bubble for members of the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning, marching their way to the 2020 final.
Most players these teams have never won the Cup, but every single one of them has dreamed of it. It was in those youth hockey tournaments that many of those dreams were born, with days and nights spent around teammates, hoping that the tournaments would never end. In light of that, perhaps it's fitting that the NHL's bubble is in Edmonton to close out the season. The city also plays host to the Brick Invitational Tournament, one of the most famous youth hockey tournaments in North America and the epicenter of hockey in the summer months.
An Edmonton beginning
For one week each year, some of the best 10-year-old hockey players in North America converge on an ice rink under a domed ceiling inside the sprawling West Edmonton Mall, 20 minutes southwest of Rogers Place. Founded in 1990, the Brick has seen more than 200 alumni reach the NHL. In fact, eight players on the playoff rosters of the teams in the final, including four regulars, played in the Brick as 10-year-olds. Lightning forwards Tyler Johnson and Brayden Point are both past Brick champions. In all, about 90 players who participated in the Brick tournament played in the NHL's postseason bubble at some point this season.
Craig Styles, the tournament chairman, has been there from the very beginning and has been overwhelmed by the success of the tournament. "It's exciting to see the names that come up every draft year, but for me, it's really the respect and citizenship that happens at the tournament," he said. "I see the kids competing, but they high-five each other walking in the retail center, then they all get together at the end of the tournament and trade sweaters and pins, and they keep these relationships going."
The Eastern Conference finals, in particular, provided a bit of a Brick reunion of sorts. Tampa Bay's Johnson went head-to-head with New York Islanders forward Jordan Eberle; the duo were teammates at the Brick in 2000. Their Vancouver Vipers squad beat a team of Toronto-based superstars led by Johnson's eventual Lightning teammate Steven Stamkos. Then Point captained Team Brick, the tournament's official host team, to the 2006 title. A year later, Isles center Mathew Barzal led his Brick team to a title and earned tournament MVP honors.
"It was a great experience and one of my fondest memories growing up playing hockey as a kid," Johnson recently told The Edmonton Sun. "The tournament had lots of great skill and was very well organized. I remember hanging out at West Edmonton Mall for a full week. It was lots of fun."
Eberle and Johnson scored some big goals in their Brick tournament, and Eberle scored the overtime game winner to take the tournament title 20 years before he netted an OT winner to extend the series in last week's Eastern Conference finals Game 5.
Intro to bubble life
Once Brick teams arrive at the tournament each year, Styles notes that players and families don't have much need to leave the West Edmonton Mall, the largest mall in North America.
"The very first year, we called it 'a tournament for the whole family,'" Styles said. "To me, it was about a hockey experience, but it was an experience that took grandma and grandpa, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters and got them out of the cold rinks in winter and put them in one of the most amazing structures in the world. A lot of families never stepped foot outside the mall for those seven days, and I know that for a fact."
Beyond the 800-plus stores and pair of hotels, the mall includes a 24-hour gym and a miniature golf course. The tournament often partners with mall entities, including a large waterpark and amusement park attached to the structure. It isn't uncommon to see players battling on the ice one moment and racing down the waterslides the next, according to Styles.
Interactions with opposing players are a little more awkward at the NHL level, but that's one of the youth tournament aspects that many players have noted as a similarity.
"The bubble is so small that you're going to run into other people from other teams, players, coaches, management. It's unavoidable," Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk said earlier in the playoffs. "Everyone wants to go watch each other's games, too. It's literally a youth hockey tournament. It's pretty cool actually."
At a youth hockey tournament, games can take a bit of a backseat to hoarding the sweetest offerings of the continental breakfast, hours on end at arcades, jumping in the pool over and over, and testing the limits of the hotel's noise policy. For NHL players, the grown-up version of the youth tournament lifestyle has included some of the old staples from their younger days, such as pingpong, video game tournaments and movie nights. The Vegas Golden Knights' famed "Fun Committee" played the role often reserved for the "cool dads" on the youth circuit, finding fun things for players to do.
That's where there's a big difference between the NHL's playoff bubble and the youth tournaments of yesteryear. The games are obviously the highlight of the day, and players have lamented not being able to have their families with them for this experience. Several players told ESPN that the distance has been noticeable. As Emily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski explored, the entertainment and accommodations that the NHL provided were "not as advertised," according to a Western Conference player, and "oversold," per another.
Although the lack of family time has been a struggle, the ties that bind teams are stronger through this shared experience.
"We've been here for so long. We've all kind of been into the routine that we're in. There aren't a whole lot of options for entertainment, so we've really bonded as a team, just being around each other in the lounge, playing cards, hanging out, eating meals together," Dallas Stars forward Blake Comeau said. "I guess you can kind of look at it in a way as when you're younger. Going to tournaments, being in the hotel, playing mini sticks in the hallway -- obviously, we're not doing that. But you are spending a lot of time together as a team. Really bonded. Really grown. I think that's a big reason why we've put ourselves in this opportunity to win the Stanley Cup."
The Brick today
Like so many things this year, the 2020 Brick Invitational was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, marking the first summer without the tournament since it began 30 years ago. Styles has worked with the tournament committee to create another opportunity for the kids who were supposed to travel to Edmonton for this year's event: a second tournament in 2021 exclusively for those 11-year-olds, in addition to holding the Brick for the 10-year-olds at its regularly scheduled time next summer.
Hockey tournaments across North America are scarce in general this year, as many wait until it is deemed safer to travel. Some local governments are not allowing any contact sports until the COVID-19 pandemic is more under control, which puts hockey in the crosshairs. Some teams will have to decide if it's worth going to places that have less stringent rules but higher virus rates in order to get on the ice. That's not to mention the number of players who might not be able to play because of financial constraints caused by the pandemic.
For now, young players can watch and live vicariously through their NHL heroes. Likewise, NHL players might have younger versions of themselves in the backs of their heads. They know how long they have dreamed of this opportunity. At this stage of the game, the players have one-track minds.
"I think reflection a lot of times happens in those days and weeks after a season is over," said Stars forward Tyler Seguin, a 2002 Brick Tournament participant. "If you start reflecting now or start thinking ahead, you're going to miss that opportunity and that window of what this moment is."
After all, the fondest tournament memories are usually from the ones you win.
ESPN's Greg Wyshynski contributed to this story.