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Lightning star, Rays president discuss sports in the age of Covid

Brian Hartz

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Tampa Bay Lightning forward Alex Killorn was a featured speaker during a Conference on World Affairs session on Friday.

The St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs continued on Friday with a discussion about how the Covid-19 crisis has affected, and will continue to affect, the world of professional sports. Led by sports journalist Peter Golenbock, the session featured Tampa Bay Rays President Brian Auld and Tampa Bay Lightning forward Alex Killorn, who each shared some little-known facts about how their 2020 seasons played out against the background of a global pandemic.

Killorn spoke at length about the difficulties of competing in playoff “bubbles” in Toronto and Edmonton as the Lightning embarked on what would ultimately be a successful pursuit of the Stanley Cup. But he prefaced that with the revelation that the team came close to opting out of the playoffs entirely.

“We had a vote [on] whether or not we wanted to go back and play in the playoffs,” he told Golenbock. “If the players decided not to go back and play, we didn’t have to play, but we felt we owed it to the fans. We were in a situation where we were able to play … we’re able to continue with our jobs and a lot of people weren’t.”

Without naming any names, Killorn said he got the sense that some of the teams that qualified for the playoffs and entered the bubble “maybe didn’t really want to be there” because of the tight restrictions that limited the movement of players and coaches to the arena and their hotel only.

“We weren’t allowed to leave the hotel,” Killorn said. “You go from the hotel to the arena and the arena to the hotel. Once you win the two first series, you go to Edmonton, where the hotel was connected to the arena. You didn’t have much of a chance to get outside, to live a normal life. It became very monotonous. You had to get creative with the way you spent your time. You made sure teammates weren’t hanging by themselves in their hotel rooms all day.”

However, the further they advanced in the playoffs, the more the Lightning embraced their strange, monotonous situation.

“The longer the process went on,” Killonr said, “the more important winning became, because you had already dedicated and given up a month of your life to this bubble, so why not go win the entire thing rather than come halfway?”

That’s not to say there weren’t frustrations and setbacks. Killorn revealed that the NHL initiated discussions about how to bring players’ wives, kids and girlfriends into the bubble, but ultimately nixed the idea because many of them were in the United States and would face logistical hurdles in trying to cross the border into Canada.

“None of us were able to see our families for the whole time we were in the bubble,” he said. But at the end of the playoffs, the league relaxed the rule for players like Killorn, a Montreal native, who have family members in Canada. That allowed Killorn’s father to join him in celebrating the Stanley Cup win in Edmonton.

Even though it was a season that defied any sense of normalcy, Killorn said he will remember 2020 more for winning the Stanley Cup — the culmination of a lifelong dream — than the difficulties imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Growing up in Canada,” he said, “my whole life has been dedicated to hockey. The reason you play is to win the Stanley Cup. And for us in Tampa, we had come close so many times — we had gotten so many chances. To finally just win it felt so great. It’s something they could never take away from you. Like my mom always says, my college degree, the Stanley Cup, no matter what happens the rest of your life, it’s something they could never take away from you. I’m very proud of it.”

Tampa Bay Rays President Brian Auld.

The Rays also got to experience life in a postseason bubble as they ran away with the American League East — posting a 40-20 record in the shortened regular season — and defeated the Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees and Houston Astros in the playoffs to face off against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, held at a spectator-free Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, because of Covid-19 protocols. The Rays would ultimately lose the series, four games to two, but the fact that the team was able to compete for the title, let alone have a season at all, still amazes Auld.

“This pandemic has affected just about every single thing we do,” Auld told Golenbock. “We’ve tried to roll with the punches, but for us, our players and, I think, everyone, it’s been emotionally exhausting and the challenge of many of our lifetimes.”

Auld said that even for the Rays — widely considered one of the savviest, most forward-thinking franchises in Major League Baseball — the extent of the pandemic’s effects on nearly all aspects of daily life came as a shock. On March 12, 2020, the date that the Rays decided to shut down their spring training in Port Charlotte, Auld thought it would be a mere “two to four weeks” before normal operations could resume.

“And yet here we are,” he said, “doing this interview over Zoom nearly a year later.”

Opening Day of the 60-game season was set for July 23, but it was a mad scramble to get there, Auld said, adding that negotiations between the players’ union and MLB were in full swing right up until the day before the first pitch was thrown.

“I think it was on Opening Day that we announced how playoffs were going to work and that there was going to be a universal DH,” he said. “There was just an incredible amount of uncertainty surrounding the entire situation, all the way until we finally started playing ball.”

Auld credits the Rays’ organizational culture for the way the team was able to excel amid the pandemic’s myriad challenges. With one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, the team always manages to do more with less and has an us-against-the-world mentality that, Auld said, led to “sincere buy-in” on the part of the front office, coaching staff and players when it came to respecting Covid-19 protocols. The message, he said, was, “Whatever you’re doing affects all of us — let’s all be in this together.”

Auld heaped praise on American League Manager of the Year Kevin Cash for the way he was able to leverage the Rays’ on-field success into a shared sense of responsibility for health and safety during the pandemic. Unlike other teams, most notably the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals, the Rays experienced no significant Covid-19 outbreaks and thus fewer disruptions in the form of canceled or postponed games and players missing time.

As the wins piled up, Auld received more and more feedback from fans about how much it meant to not only have the team playing, but playing well.

“That drove us,” he said, “because the biggest question around the entire issue of sports was, ‘Should we be doing this at all?'”

He added, “I’ll be forever grateful to this team for the resiliency they showed, the way they played, the way they came through in clutch moments. [We were] leaning on one another on the field the same way that all of us across the country were leaning on one another as we fought the virus.”

The full video of this panel discussion will be available early next week.

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