TORONTO — Tuukka Rask deserves our respect.
And so do the Boston Bruins.
On a professional level, it had to be agonizing for the 33-year-old goaltender to walk away from his team in the middle of a playoff series. But clearly he felt there was a more important job that required him to return home – as a father to Vivien, Adelie and four-month-old Livia, and as a husband to Jasmiina.
This is where the Bruins showed class. They saw Rask carry them to within one victory of the Stanley Cup last year and have clearly seen their chances at another championship run reduced by his return to Boston. And yet they chose to prioritize their player’s needs over their own by standing behind him.
"We knew this would be a mental challenge, especially players with families," general manager Don Sweeney said Saturday. "I give Tuukka a hell of a lot of credit for trying to persevere through this and initiate the process to come up and be with his teammates.
"First and foremost that’s what he wants to do, but the priorities are in the right order and this is what he has to do at this time."
In hindsight, there were some warning signs.
Sweeney said he wasn’t completely caught off-guard by Rask’s decision because of conversations he’d had with him throughout the return-to-play process. After Boston dropped Game 2 of its series to Carolina on Thursday night, the goaltender told reporters that the atmosphere in games without fans reminded him of exhibition play rather than what he was used to in the playoffs.
Those comments blared loudly, but for all the wrong reasons.
It wasn’t so much a criticism of how the NHL chose to stage a one-of-a-kind Stanley Cup tournament as much as it was a sign of how much duress he was experiencing personally.
Rask’s baby, Livia, was born in late April and he’d been inside the Toronto bubble since July 26. If the Bruins reach their goal and compete for another Cup, he might not have returned to Boston until early October.
If it had felt like a long road already, a much longer one stretched out in front of him.
"He had been trying to battle through it," said Sweeney.
"During the course of the time up here it’s been increasingly more and more difficult for Tuukka to mentally stay where he needs to be and ultimately he made the decision that he felt he had to be in a different place," he added. "I think we all understand that these are trying times for everybody."
This COVID-19 pandemic affects everyone differently. There’s a heightened level of stress in the air in general and athletes aren’t exempted from that.
In fact, some might be feeling it even more acutely because the only safe way for the NHL to finish out this season was in the bubble environment. That puts a strain on families. Ivan Barbashev of the St. Louis Blues and Lars Eller of the Washington Capitals each travelled home from the secure zone for the birth of a child and chose to return.
If any other players follow Rask’s lead and depart permanently, they are deserving of the kind of understanding he was shown by his employer. Sweeney couldn’t even say for sure if another member of the Bruins might choose to go.
"You never know whether or not there’s a domino effect to some of these decisions," he said. "Everybody’s individual situation will be taken as it comes. We’ll try and do our best to communicate with the players in case there are things at home that they’re concerned about, that we may be able to help with."
As for Rask, this decision shouldn’t be tied to any others he’ll eventually need to make about his future. He’s under contract to the Bruins for the 2020-21 season and there seems to be an expectation he’ll honour it.
"He’s the same goaltender that went to the Stanley Cup Final and a Game 7 last year … and he’ll be the same player when we get up and running again next year," said Sweeney.