Players react to the bubble
by Derek O'Brien|13 JUN 2021
ROC's Nikita Zadorov talks with Canada's Nicolas Beaudin after their quarter-final meeting.
photo: Chris Tanouye / HHOF-IIHF Images

There’s no question that the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship was something unique, both on and off the ice.

Public health restrictions in Latvia, which were slightly relaxed during the tournament, meant that most games at Arena Riga and the Olympic Sports Centre were played with no fans present, and others with very few.

“The atmosphere is funny, maybe there’s even a bit of nostalgia,” Russian winger Sergei Tolchinski said about playing in a nearly empty rink. “It reminds me of games when my school played in tournaments and there were 50 people watching – 48 of them our parents.”

The declining but still-present threat of COVID-19 also meant that, for the duration of the tournament starting six days before it began, players and staff of all 16 teams were confined to the arenas, their hotels, and transportation between – the so-called bubble.

As several players attested, bubble life wasn’t always easy but often had the effect of galvanizing a team, which is sometimes difficult to achieve in a short tournament like the World Championship.

U.S. head coach Jack Capuano had an idea what to expect after being an assistant coach for the Ottawa Senators in the NHL’s North Division this season, and noticed the positive effect on his team.

“You could see them grow, they didn’t know each other and now, they know a little bit about their families and their golf game,” Capuano said after his team won the bronze medal. “That can bring the team closer together. We wish fans could have been in the building but it’s a unique year and they came together as a close-knit group.”

Canadian forward Brandon Pirri also noticed the forced togetherness brought his team together faster, as it rebounded from an 0-3 start and eventually won the gold medal.

“We’ve gotten close. There’s not a lot of places to go,” he said during the tournament after the Canadians seemed to turn the corner but still had work ahead of them. “We all enjoy each other’s company and want to make it last as long as we can.”

“It was different,” said veteran German defenceman Korbinian Holzer, who has several World Championships to contrast this year’s with. “The corona times have been going on for a long time and now we play a tournament without getting out of the hotel or seeing the city a little bit, but I can only say thank you to everyone for making this possible. It’s a big thing that we all appreciate that we were able to play hockey and I hope next year we can get back to normal and get some fans back in the building.”

“The bubble was the same for every team,” said Swedish forward Victor Olofsson, who didn’t want to use that as an excuse for his team’s early exit from the tournament. “It was different, but we also had, I think, 20 new guys playing in the championship for the first time, so we didn’t know what to expect.”

The confines were understandably difficult for many players, particularly those separated from their families. A few players spoke candidly about the situation.

“It’s been awful in the bubble, to be honest,” said Belarusian forward Francis Pare. “It feels like a prison. I miss so much my family, my daughter and my newborn son in Minsk – my wife is there. I can’t wait to go back there, it’s going to be a long bus ride.”

On a more positive note, Pare said: “But my teammates have been really good. I can’t wait to go home, speak French and eat a good poutine.”

“Honestly, I’m counting the days until I can see my family,” Czech goaltender Simon Hrubec admitted. “I miss them a lot. I didn't see them for five months of the season (while playing in the KHL), now it's going to be a month again. I'm really looking forward to it.”

No team was as badly impacted by the effects of COVID as Italy, which was forced to play the tournament without its head coach and several key players. The Italians brought a very young team to Riga and battled hard despite not winning a game.

“It was difficult for us, especially at training camp,” said veteran forward Luca Figo. “We started with some cases on the first day but we battled hard and I’m very proud, especially of the young guys. They came for the first time and they battled through all this.”

The prospect of playing in a bubble was obviously unappealing to many players ahead of time. That’s one of several factors that resulted in many teams bringing rosters that were younger and less experienced that usual. A lot of young players seized the opportunity that was given to them.

When asked about what he would remember most about this World Championship, Canadian head coach Gerard Gallant answered: “Just the guys, a bunch of character guys who worked hard. That’s gonna be good for every one of those careers, the young guys on our team and I’m real proud today with this group and we had a lot of fun.”

But even for some that didn’t win the gold or a medal at all, the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Riga was a very special experience.

“When you see what happened in two-and-a-half weeks, in character, in heart, in anything to be successful and be a family, we can say nothing was missing. It’s very seldom like that,” German forward Marcel Noebels said in the aftermath of Germany’s loss in the bronze-medal game.

“The guys who spent weeks together became a family. One day I will tell my grandkids about this.”