NHL's older coaches debate wearing masks, taking precautions

Full Screen
1 / 5

In this photo provided by the Dallas Stars NHL hockey team, interim head coach Rick Bowness watches practice in Frisco, Texas, Tuesday, July 14, 2020. Bowness, 65, coached from behind the bench the first couple of days of Dallas Stars training camp before lacing up his skates and getting on the ice. Montreal's 60-year-old Claude Julien, Edmonton's 58-year-old Dave Tippett and others are confident in the NHL's protocols as older, more at-risk people during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jeff Toates/Dallas Stars via AP)

After two days behind a mask and off his skates, Rick Bowness returned to his natural habitat on the ice with air inside the rink blowing against his face.

“You get out there and you miss it,” the Dallas Stars coach said. “You realize how much you enjoy being out there.”

The NHL’s oldest head coach still worries about COVID-19 but not enough to stop doing his job. It’s a risk-reward proposition coaches and executives around sports are weighing, and while Florida assistant Mike Kitchen is the only one to so far opt out of hockey’s return, plenty of others are considering masking up behind the bench and taking other precautions in the middle of a pandemic.

“It’s a different world out there,” Bowness, 65, said. “I’m going to have to adjust to it, there is no question. I just want to make sure I’m cautious, which we’ve been since this virus started, and I will continue to do that. My health — hey, I’m a grandfather now, my first grandkid. I intend on playing some golf with that kid down the road. I intend on being here a lot longer. So, yeah, am I going to be careful? Absolutely.”

The World Health Organization said the disease can be more severe in people 60 and over, and the NHL has four head coaches and a handful of assistants in that age range. The average age of the 24 head coaches in the playoffs is just under 54, the second-oldest behind the NBA among North America’s four major professional sports leagues.

With that life experience comes meetings like New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz held with his staff this week to talk about whether to don a mask for games and practices.

“I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do,” Trotz said Wednesday on his 58th birthday. “I’m not too concerned. I’m in pretty good health, but it affects everybody differently if you do get it. I don’t want to get it, so there’s a good chance I could have a mask behind the bench, but I haven’t decided yet. I should say I don’t want to give it to anybody if I have it, but I don’t.”

Coaches are relying on frequent testing at training camp and in the hub cities of Toronto and Edmonton, hoping before going into quarantine that players and their families can avoid contracting the virus that halted the season in March. All team staff are tested every other day for now and will be daily once games start.