Brady Keeper said life in the National Hockey League’s Toronto “bubble” was a cool experience.
The former University of Maine All-Hockey East third-team defenseman played with the Florida Panthers and spent more than two weeks in Toronto as part of the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols.
Keeper has completed his first full season as a pro with the Panthers, which were eliminated by the New York Islanders in the qualifying round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
After two weeks of training camp at their own facilities, the NHL’s expanded playoff format sent 24 teams to either Toronto (Eastern Conference) or Edmonton (Western Conference). They have remained there since July 26 and are being monitored closely.
“You get tested every morning. Your team has a floor at the hotel, and each player has his own room,” Keeper said. “You wear a mask everywhere except when you eat.”
They practiced social distancing and were provided with lots of hand sanitizer.
Keeper said there were set times for everything for the first five days. After that, the restrictions were eased so participants could go to restaurants and stores in the bubble, a specific area in Toronto closed off to the general public.
BMO Field, where Major League Soccer’s Toronto Football Club and the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts play, was transformed into an outdoor recreation facility for the players.
“There were ping-pong tables set up. You had virtual golf, hitting into screens and there were other types of games,” he said. “I wasn’t bored at all. It was good.”
Teams held team meals for breakfast and pregame scenarios, but that they were otherwise able to choose where to eat.
“There was also room service, and I did that most of the time. I FaceTimed my family and played video games,” Keeper said.
He said the food was really good but a little expensive.
Since the teams landed in Edmonton and Toronto, there haven’t been any COVID-19 cases reported among any NHL players or team personnel.
“[The league] has done a good job protecting the teams,” Keeper said. “They treated us well and put things into place so we’d be safe.”
Keeper appeared in the Panthers’ 5-0 exhibition game loss to Tampa Bay and in the second game of the series, a 4-2 setback.
He played 13 minutes, 13 seconds against the Islanders and had two blocked shots and two hits along with two giveaways and a takeaway.
Keeper had spent the entire season in the American Hockey with the Springfield Thunderbirds where he notched six goals and 12 assists in 61 games.
There are no fans allowed at the NHL games.
“I don’t pay attention to the fans. I know it was a lot quieter,” Keeper said. “You can hear your teammates talking and the other team talking. There was a lot of communication on the ice.”
He said the ice surface was in pretty good shape despite the August heat and humidity.
“The ice was smooth. We played the first game every day so as the day went along, it probably got worse [for the later games],” he said.
A handful of players opted out of playing due to the coronavirus but Keeper, who has sons Napesis (5) and Navyn (almost 2) and a fiancee [Shaylyn], said he was confident the league would do everything it could to keep everyone safe.
The 24-year-old native of Cross Lake, Manitoba, signed a two-year, entry-level contract with the Panthers in March 2019. It pays him $925,000 per year.
Keeper said playing in his first NHL playoff game was something special and that he wasn’t nervous because there weren’t any fans.
“I thought I played pretty well. You make mistakes in a game, but you’ve got to shake them off,” he said. “The fact they gave me a shot to play made me feel good.”
Keeper played two seasons at UMaine and posted 13 goals and 31 assists in 73 games. He said he took some big steps this season, but there is still plenty to learn.
“I’ve got to get stronger and faster,” he said. “Playing in the NHL is way different than anywhere else. It’s the highest level there is.”
Keeper said his two years at UMaine were among the best times he’s had playing hockey.
“Playing in front of those fans at Alfond Arena was something special,” he said.