There isn’t a day that goes by that Rick Bowness doesn’t sit back and wonder.
How safe is it for him to stand behind the bench this summer if the NHL’s 24-team tournament goes ahead as scheduled?
“I’ve been giving it an awful lot of thought. Without a doubt. I’m 65,’’ Bowness told The Athletic this week. “Am I nervous? Absolutely I am, to get this thing.’’
To be clear, he is currently planning to coach the Dallas Stars this summer. But he’s certainly eyeing the situation closely. As he should be.
And he’s not alone. There are 12 active members on NHL coaching staffs that will be 60 or over by the end of the month — Bowness being the oldest head coach at 65.
All these coaches need to be thinking about this right now, considering we are just a few weeks from the proposed starting date of training camps, set to open on July 10.
“No doubt you’re thinking of the different options you may have, whether it’s wearing a mask, to what extent you are going to deal with your team and players (meaning distancing),” Montreal Canadiens head coach Claude Julien, who turned 60 in April, said via text message this week. “I know it may be a challenge behind the bench more than anywhere else but my thinking is that I need to be ready to adjust and have options when that time comes depending on where we are at with COVID and our hockey circumstance.
“That also means pulling myself out if I feel a real danger,” Julien added. “My family and life are more important than my job at that point.’’
Julien also said that he knows the league is planning on taking every precaution. And that’s true.
There will be a protocol for all participants – which includes coaches – for Phase 3 and Phase 4, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly confirmed in an e-mail. “Everyone who needs to know will be made aware,” Daly wrote.
The NHL will not place restrictions on coaches based on age and it will be up to each individual to decide if they want to come back or not. If a coach decides not to come back, the team will work to accommodate that decision.
“The health, well-being and safety of all of our coaches is our primary focus,” Michael Hirshfeld, the executive director of the NHL Coaches’ Association, said via text message. “In discussions with the NHL and Bill Daly about the return to play, we have been assured that our association will be included in decisions to help determine what is both safe and reasonable for all of our coaches.’’
Basically, it comes down to each coach’s comfort level.
Pittsburgh’s Jacques Martin is the oldest assistant coach in the NHL at 67.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan reached out to Martin to make sure he was at ease with still being behind the bench. Martin confirmed that he is.
“I don’t know, I’ve been prudent, I’ve been careful, but for some reason, I guess my belief is that I feel I’m in good condition for my health both physically and mentally. I guess I’m of the belief that when my times comes, I’m going to go,’’ Martin said with a half chuckle.
“It’s funny, I haven’t been scared but I’ve been careful as far as when I go to the store I wear my mask, wash my hands and social distancing. I believe strongly in those things. I’ll continue to be careful. But when Sully asked me, I had no hesitation.’’
Mike Kitchen is 64, the second-oldest assistant coach in the league. You better believe the Florida Panthers assistant coach has put some thought into it.
“Well, it’s definitely crossed my mind,’’ Kitchen said this week. “Especially in Florida, you’re looking at going down and having a training camp in Florida where the cases are spiking right now. Everyone is making plans, but there’s still a lot of unknowns right now, with the virus itself and how you contract it, right? I mean, there are so many different parts. What about the cleaning staff doing the rooms in the hub city? What about the people serving the food? What about the bus driver? They all go home …
“So yeah, there is concern,” Kitchen said candidly. “I’m just wondering, how do they have everything covered? I will definitely give it some thought.’’
Kitchen is set to become a grandfather for the first time in November with his daughter expecting twins.
“You wouldn’t want anything to happen before that time. A lot of family stuff that crosses your mind,’’ Kitchen said.
Bowness, a grandfather himself, wants to see what Phase 3 and 4 protocols look like once they are finalized and how the bubbles will work in each Hub city.
“We’ll have to see how it all looks when we get there,’’ he said. “You’ve got to trust that the league and everyone is doing everything they can to protect us all. Until I get there and see how it’s all laid out. If the safety and precautions are being met, then yeah, we’ll go ahead with it.’’
Would he wear a mask behind the bench?
“I certainly haven’t ruled that out,” Bowness said. “I don’t know what the other coaches are saying, but we certainly have not ruled that out.
“Don’t be surprised if you see me behind there with a mask on. I wouldn’t hesitate, let’s put it that way, if I had any concerns at all.’’
Winnipeg Jets assistant coach Charlie Huddy, who turned 61 earlier this month, says there’s of course a concern, but he’s planning to be behind the bench.
“I think we’re all the same, I think everybody is worried about it, the players included. I mean, we’ve obviously never been through this before. I don’t think anybody knows how it’s all going to play out,’’ Huddy said this week.
“Do we wear a mask? We’ll see what the NHL comes up with as far as the protocol for us behind the bench,” Huddy added. “I don’t know, it’s new for everybody. Am I nervous? Of course you’re going to be nervous. I’m a little bit older, could I get it easier than other people? I guess that could possibly happen. But I’m still going to coach and we’ll just go from there.’’
Philadelphia Flyers head coach Alain Vigneault, 59, trusts that the league will have everything figured out.
“I have absolutely no worries, with what I’ve heard we have to do with the NHL protocol,’’ Vigneault said via text message this week. “Personally, I’m healthy, no conditions, if I get it, I get it.’’
Added Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville, 61, via text message this week: “Will do whatever is required. I know I’m old, but raring to go.’’
That same excitement is fuelling Martin as well, he feels great about a veteran Penguins team he feels can win. He’s balanced all the risks in his mind and can’t wait to get out there. The grandfather of four won’t let COVID-19 ruin that opportunity by keeping him home.
“I don’t want to stop living, put it that way,’’ Martin said of being willing to still coach this summer.
“I just feel I’m fortunate to be healthy and hope it continues.’’
The point is that if anyone feels unsafe this summer, they can walk away. As reported last week, the NHLPA plans to negotiate the right for individual players to opt-out of the tournament if they’re not comfortable playing.
“Players and coaches who do not feel comfortable should have the right to walk away, because their health is No. 1, no matter what,” Bowness said. “So if they’re not comfortable, then they should be able to walk away without any repercussions whatsoever.’’