They spent three months together as a family. On June 27, Dowling flew to Dallas for postseason training camp, while Meg and Perri stayed home in Cochrane, Alberta. "Of course they had a choice to opt out, but they don't really have a choice," Meg Dowling says. "This is his dream he's chasing. I'm so happy for him, but I knew he'd miss so much."
Dowling's Dallas Stars have made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Back home, Perri had her first laugh. She held her head up for the first time. She spent hours petting the family's two dogs, giggling.
"I was there for all of that and he wasn't," Meg Dowling says. "She's completely different now. She's a totally different baby."
The couple FaceTimed every day. Meg was worried that the screen time wasn't enough. "Are you scared she isn't going to know you?" she asked Justin. He said no, but she feared the answer was yes.
The family was apart for 76 days. Sometime in the middle, Justin went dark for three days. He didn't call; he barely texted back. "I didn't know what was going on," Meg says. "I messaged him, 'Are you OK?'"
Justin only later revealed to Meg the reason for his absence: "He said, 'I was so sad and not doing well, and I just couldn't see you or talk to you,'" Meg recalls. "I was broken. Broken when I heard that."
During the conference finals, the NHL allowed clearance for some families to enter the Edmonton bubble. Since the Dowlings live two hours away, it was easy for Meg and Perri to make the trip. They self-isolated for a week, drove to Edmonton, then quarantined for another four days in a hotel. Once Meg produced her fourth negative COVID-19 test, Justin was allowed to visit their hotel room. Perri, who had just woken up from a nap, recognized her dad instantly. Meg cried. Perri smiled and later spent the day tugging at her dad's playoff beard.
The sweetest bubble reunion 🥰 pic.twitter.com/UNCiWLHef1— Dallas Stars (@DallasStars) September 11, 2020
"I'm so grateful for this opportunity, and the NHL has done such an amazing job making us feel safe and secure," Meg says. "But I also feel bad. It's been really, really hard for a lot of families. So many of the girls and families on our team are in the U.S. or Europe, and they don't even have the option to come here as of right now. They don't get to share this experience like we can with Justin."
When the NHL and NHLPA negotiated bubble protocols, they agreed that "spouses, partners and children" would be able to join by the conference finals. However, at the time of the deal in July, things were moving fast; the deal was agreed to on a Friday night, and training camps began that following Monday. The government in Alberta gave exemptions for NHL teams and staffers to skirt the federally mandated 14-day quarantine, but it said they still needed to mull over the request for additional family members to join later.
The NHL and NHLPA didn't want to hold things up, so they agreed to go forward with their deal, hopeful the issue would be resolved. The tournament got off to a strong start; for seven straight weeks there have been zero positive confirmed tests, with thousands of tests being performed each week. And yet they didn't get clearance from Alberta health and government officials to have family members outside of Canada exempt from the 14-day quarantine.
As of this week, Dowling is the only wife and Perri is the only baby in the bubble. Four Vegas Golden Knights players' girlfriends -- all Canadians living in Canada -- had begun the process for entry but were in the middle of their four-day quarantines when Vegas was eliminated. The Stars say that seven additional family members (all Canadian and in Canada currently) will make the trip for the Stanley Cup Final, including Jamie Oleksiak's parents, Corey Perry's wife and Tyler Seguin's mom, dad and two sisters.
The NHL has wanted to keep the bubble as small as possible to minimize risk. Adding a new wave of people this late in the tournament inherently threatens more exposure to the virus. Even though the players and league had a handshake on the agreement, many players became frustrated by a lack of transparency through the process and felt the goalposts were constantly moving.
"To be honest, the whole thing was not quite as billed," says one Western Conference player who spent weeks in the Edmonton bubble. "Before we get there it was like, 'Oh, absolutely, bring the families in for the conference finals. We'll have it all set up. It will be great!' Then once we got there, it was like, 'Oh, we don't know how we're going to do the family thing.' Then they said they were having trouble with the Canadian government not letting families in. Which I think is kind of bulls---, to be honest, because they had no trouble getting our third equipment manager in, or our social media coordinator, or ... I could go on. It seemed like they didn't want the families in there when it really got down to it. The boxes they made families check were a little unrealistic."
Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Zach Bogosian and his wife, Bianca, are American, and they live in Minnesota during the offseason. They have three kids, all under the age of 4. Bogosian, the third overall pick of the 2008 draft, would love for his family to be with him and potentially celebrate on the ice should he win his first Stanley Cup.
"It was talked about; we went through a bunch of scenarios," Bogosian says. "But it would be pretty tough for my wife to be cooped in a hotel room with three kids that young. It's been hard on a lot of guys because we still haven't gotten a for sure answer. I know people are working hard to try to get us answers, but obviously it's an uncertain time for everyone in the world, and we're no better than anyone else."
The NHL, aware of the sacrifice so many families have made, is trying to speed through the tournament, getting everyone home as soon as possible. Off days have been minimal, and there's even expected to be one back-to-back set of games baked into the Stanley Cup Final schedule.
Players have tried to find the comforts of home the best they can. When the Nashville Predators arrived in Edmonton, they found framed photos of their loved ones already in their hotel rooms (thanks to the team's hockey operations department). The mother and grandmother of Colorado Avalanche forward Tyson Jost dropped off homemade baked goods to the bubble, which Jost shared with teammates. During the Western Conference finals, the NHL began showing videos on the Jumbotrons of players' families rooting for them. While the players ultimately appreciated the sentiment, there was a miscommunication about whether players knew about the videos ahead of time -- and a few were caught off guard to see such personal videos appear in the heat of intense games.
The NHL is planning to integrate more virtual family moments into the Stanley Cup Final games, though organizers promise to work with both the families and the players to create something meaningful.
The NHL also made an expensive investment to secure extensive Wi-Fi and cellular service in the bubble. Tournament organizers knew players would be much happier if they could bide time in their hotel rooms playing video games, and they needed to be able to connect with loved ones without interruption.
Bogosian, for example, FaceTimes his family in the morning when he's walking to the rink, at nights when he's walking back to the hotel, and after team meetings the evening before games. He has watched his 4-year-old daughter, Mila, take tennis lessons on FaceTime; Bianca tries to keep the camera on the court while also chasing their other two kids. Hunter, who will be 2 in November, was mostly communicating by pointing and making noises when Bogosian was last home. Now Hunter is stringing together almost-sentences of two and three words. Harper, who is 9 months old, has begun crawling and standing up on things over the past three months.
"For people to just watch on TV, they may say, 'Oh, they're just hockey players,'" Bogosian says. "But we're hockey players for only three or four hours a day. We have the other 20 hours to be a brother, a father, a son, a husband. Our support system is what helps us get through something like the bubble, but it's also hard to be without it."
Just as the goalposts moved on the family issue, players felt a bit misled about amenities in the bubble. Players in the Western Conference, for example, were given a brochure featuring a picture of a man fly-fishing in the mountains. "Where did they even get that picture?" one player asked. "The mountains are three hours away." Players were also promised excursions, like golf outings. But when they got to the bubble, players were told they couldn't go golfing for at least 14 days, and by the time they could go, games were being played every other day and players weren't as enthusiastic about doing anything other than recover.
Some players have begun referring to the outdoor common area in the Edmonton bubble as "the prison yard." It is a cement courtyard with a bunch of socially distanced picnic tables, a Tim Horton's truck and a basketball hoop. It doesn't help that the Edmonton team hotels are connected to the arena through tunnels, so players can go an entire day without seeing the sun.
Says a prominent NHL agent: "Anyone with just a hint of anxiety or depression through normal times is being exacerbated by the isolation of being in the bubble, not being able to be with loved ones and not being able to get out and do things."
Players who have left the bubble say that reuniting with their families was overwhelming. Just check out this video, posted by Golden Knights defenseman Jon Merrill's wife, Jessica:
"I just wish people realized what an incredible sacrifice so many people have made to put on these playoffs," Meg Dowling says. "These guys are chasing their goal of winning a Stanley Cup with their brothers, their teammates; this is what every kid has dreamed of doing. It's really admirable, and they're happy for the opportunity. But they also had to leave their loved ones behind and miss out on a lot of life moments. And it's OK for them to feel sad about that."