After two days behind a mask and off his skates, Rick Bowness returned to his natural habitat on the ice with air inside the rink blowing against his face.
“You get out there and you miss it,” the Dallas Stars coach said. “You realize how much you enjoy being out there.”
The NHL’s oldest head coach still worries about COVID-19 but not enough to stop doing his job. It’s a risk-reward proposition coaches and executives around sports are weighing, and while Florida assistant Mike Kitchen is the only one to so far opt out of hockey’s return, plenty of others are considering masking up behind the bench and taking other precautions in the middle of a pandemic.
“It’s a different world out there,” Bowness, 65, said. “I’m going to have to adjust to it, there is no question. I just want to make sure I’m cautious, which we’ve been since this virus started, and I will continue to do that. My health — hey, I’m a grandfather now, my first grandkid. I intend on playing some golf with that kid down the road. I intend on being here a lot longer. So, yeah, am I going to be careful? Absolutely.”
The World Health Organization said the disease can be more severe in people 60 and over, and the NHL has four head coaches and a handful of assistants in that age range. The average age of the 24 head coaches in the playoffs is just under 54, the second-oldest behind the NBA among North America’s four major professional sports leagues.
With that life experience comes meetings like New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz held with his staff this week to talk about whether to don a mask for games and practices.
“I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do,” Trotz said Wednesday on his 58th birthday. “I’m not too concerned. I’m in pretty good health, but it affects everybody differently if you do get it. I don’t want to get it, so there’s a good chance I could have a mask behind the bench, but I haven’t decided yet. I should say I don’t want to give it to anybody if I have it, but I don’t.”
Coaches are relying on frequent testing at training camp and in the hub cities of Toronto and Edmonton, hoping before going into quarantine that players and their families can avoid contracting the virus that halted the season in March. All team staff are tested every other day for now and will be daily once games start.
“We’re all doing everything we can not to bring it into our locker room,” Bowness said. “Give our players credit, as well, because this is a big sacrifice for everyone and they’re looking after themselves.”
The NHL reported 43 players tested positive during voluntary workouts from June 8-July 12. At least three of those cases came from the Tampa Bay Lightning and one from the Boston Bruins, though the league took over reporting statistics in the name of privacy and anonymity.
Outside practice facilities, coaches’ comfort levels might vary from a hotspot such as Texas to the Canadian province of Manitoba, where there have been zero reported cases in 13 of the past 14 days.
“It was possibly easier for me, because of the fact that I was pretty darn safe right from the start,” 53-year-old Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice said. “I’m really confident in what goes on in our building, tested every second day, I don’t feel particularly exposed.”
The only coach taking part in the NHL’s return older than Bowness is 67-year-old Pittsburgh assistant Jacques Martin, who was on the ice for camp practices this week like normal. Columbus’ John Tortorella, 62, Florida’s Joel Quenneville, 61, and Montreal’s Claude Julien, 60, also all felt comfortable enough to get back to work.
Tortorella, who along with Philadelphia’s 59-year-old Alain Vigneault and Boston’s 55-year-old Bruce Cassidy is a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year, brushed aside a question about himself and said, “Safety is the priority” for all involved.
Kitchen made what he called “a difficult decision to say the least, but the right decision for me and my family” in opting out, and Quenneville said he wished his longtime right-hand man nothing but the best.
Much like players, only a handful of whom decided not to play, coaches had to make their own determinations.
“I think this is going to be an individual thing,” Bowness said. “We’re all going to deal with it in our own way. … We’re all going to have to make that call.”