Star Goalie’s decision to leave bubble hints at how tough these NHL and NBA championships will be

The Boston Bruins lost in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final last year and returned this (abbreviated) regular season to post the best record in the league. They were very much a title contender, a mostly veteran group with everything to play for.

Yet on Saturday, just two hours before Game 3 of an opening-round series with Carolina, their starting goalie, Tuukka Rask, announced he was leaving the team and the league’s Toronto-based bubble anyway. 

Just like that, Boston’s Cup chances took a massive hit because of the mental and emotional challenges unique to playing an entire playoff while quarantined and away from home and family.

“I want to be with my teammates competing, but at this moment there are things more important than hockey in my life, and that’s being with my family,” Rask said in a statement. “I want to thank the Bruins and my teammates for their support and wish them success.”

Rask is 33 years old and has been with Boston since 2007. He and his wife have three children, including a daughter born in April. It was apparent in Rask’s public comments this week, and the Bruins say his private ones, that life inside the bubble and away from the children was grinding on him. 

In the end, it was too much.

“They’re going to have their dad back,” said Boston general manager Don Sweeney, who noted that there were no family emergencies. “Tuukka was having a tough time being away in this environment … the priorities are in order. This is what he had to do at this time.”

This is why anyone who suggested that the 2020 Stanley Cup or NBA champion should have an asterisk attached to the accomplishment has had it all wrong. 

It should have an exclamation point. 

This isn’t just the normal physical, mental and emotional grind that the lengthy playoffs of basketball and hockey usually provide. This is all of that on steroids. This is harder.

What each league is attempting is perhaps the only way to stage a championship during a pandemic. The bubbles have proven incredibly successful at keeping the coronavirus at bay. It comes with a cost though, and not just the tens of millions of dollars in setting it up.

This is a human physiological experiment. Isolation amid the normal desperation of a championship chase. No one can truly know the impact.

The leagues have done almost all they can to keep players comfortable. No one is going to equate living in a nice hotel featuring as many entertainment distractions as possible with what millions of regular workers go through. This isn’t a military tour of duty or a stretch out on a fishing boat or an oil rig. It’s not even lengthy business travel for project managers or salespeople or anyone else. This is pro hockey and pro basketball. Millions are earned. Fame is generated.

It doesn’t mean it’s easy. 

Nearly everyone who has had to work away from their family, particularly one with young children, let alone a newborn, understands the struggle. Two weeks can feel like two years. The prospect of two months, and without the ability to even leave the bubble and find additional normalities in life, well, it clearly can be too much. 

Rask certainly isn’t the only NHL or NBA player who has considered leaving the bubble, even if a championship is a possibility. Whether others follow over roughly the next two months of competition is the question. 

If you are a team in either league, you might want to double your efforts at working with players to ease the situation. If Boston can lose its starting goaltender, then anyone can lose anything. 

Organizations, coaches, fans and teammates can be frustrated, but working is a choice. Rask didn’t have to opt in and always had the right to opt out. 

Besides, a player who isn’t 100 percent bought in for a playoff run is probably not one you want to count on. 

20 PHOTOSSt. Louis Blues win the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup FinalSee GallerySt. Louis Blues win the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup FinalBOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – JUNE 12: Vince Dunn #29 of the St. Louis Blues hoist the cup after defeating the Boston Bruins in Game Seven to win the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on June 12, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Rich Gagnon/Getty Images)BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – JUNE 12:Zach Sanford #12 of the St. Louis Blues is congratulated by his teammates after scoring a third period goal against the the Boston Bruins reacts in Game Seven of the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on June 12, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – JUNE 12:Zach Sanford #12 of the St. Louis Blues is congratulated by his teammates after scoring a third period goal as Tuukka Rask #40 of the Boston Bruins reacts in Game Seven of the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on June 12, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – JUNE 12:NHL commisoner Gary Bettman presents Alex Pietrangelo #27 of the St. Louis Blues with the Stanley Cup after defeating the Boston Bruins 4-1 to win Game Seven of the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on June 12, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – JUNE 12:Charlie McAvoy #73 of the Boston Bruins reacts after his teams defeat to the St. Louis Blues in Game Seven of the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on June 12, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – JUNE 12:Joakim Nordstrom #20 of the Boston Bruins reacts after his teams defeat to the St. Louis Blues in Game Seven of the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on June 12, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – JUNE 12: The St. Louis Blues celebrate after defeating the Boston Bruins in Game Seven to win the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on June 12, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – JUNE 12:Head coach Craig Berube of the St. Louis Blues shakes hands with John Moore #27 of the Boston Bruins after Game Seven of the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on June 12, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – JUNE 12: Alex Pietrangelo #27 of the St. Louis Blues celebrates with the Stanley Cup after defeating the Boston Bruins in Game Seven to win the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on June 12, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – JUNE 12: Colton Parayko #55 of the St. Louis Blues celebrate with the cup after defeating the Boston Bruins in Game Seven to win the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on June 12, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – JUNE 12: The St. Louis Blues celebrate after defeating the Boston Bruins in Game Seven to win the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on June 12, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – JUNE 12: The St. Louis Blues celebrate after defeating the Boston Bruins in Game Seven to win the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on June 12, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – JUNE 12:Alexander Steen #20 of the St. Louis Blues shakes hands with Zdeno Chara #33 of the Boston Bruins after Game Seven of the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on June 12, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – JUNE 12:Brayden Schenn #10 of the St. Louis Blues celebrates after defeating the Boston Bruins in Game Seven of the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on June 12, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Rich Gagnon/Getty Images)BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – JUNE 12: The St. Louis Blues celebrate after defeating the Boston Bruins in Game Seven to win the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on June 12, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)BOSTON, MA – JUNE 12: teammates congratulate St. Louis Blues center Ryan O’Reilly (90) on winning the Conn Smythe trophy after Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues on June 12, 2019, at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – JUNE 12:Zach Sanford #12 of the St. Louis Blues is congratulated by his teammates after scoring a third period goal as Tuukka Rask #40 of the Boston Bruins reacts in Game Seven of the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on June 12, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Rich Gagnon/Getty Images)BOSTON, MA – JUNE 12: St. Louis Blues defenseman Colton Parayko (55) hoists the Cup for Laila Anderson after Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues on June 12, 2019, at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)BOSTON, MA – JUNE 12: Boston Bruins center Karson Kuhlman (83) puts a shot on St. Louis Blues goalie Jordan Binnington (50) during Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues on June 12, 2019, at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)BOSTON, MA – JUNE 12: St. Louis Blues center Ryan O’Reilly (90) reacts to scoring during Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues on June 12, 2019, at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)Up Next

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Rask is a terrific talent, but he complained about the lack of atmosphere during the games (“dull”) and said this felt more like “playing an exhibition game.” He hadn’t cost Boston any playoff games yet, but his .889 save percentage wasn’t up to par either.

Both leagues are allowing family visits into the bubble. Maybe that will help. Either way, this isn’t going to be easy, and with each successive day in an unnatural and controlled environment, no one really knows what to expect. 

Trying to win a championship is already stressful enough. There is a reason every team employs sports psychologists. The mental performance has to be there. Players have to rise up without the intensity of crowds, without the normal rhythm of life, without their friends and families to offer that unconditional support after games. 

No one knows how that will impact decisions big or small, but a star player just left a team with clear title aspirations. You rarely, if ever, see something like that.

It’s why these 2020 NBA and NHL championships may be the hardest to win of them all.

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