Tuukka Rask is the father of a newborn baby, and he’s been away from his family all month, playing with the Boston Bruins in the NHL’s Toronto bubble amid the coronavirus pandemic. On Saturday, Rask announced that he was leaving the bubble, with his team tied 1-1 in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Carolina Hurricanes, and heading home to be with his wife and child.
“I want to be with my teammates competing, but at this moment there are things more important than hockey in my life, and that is being with my family,” Rask said in a statement released by the Bruins. “I want to thank the Bruins and my teammates for their support and wish them success.”
It cannot have been an easy decision for Rask. The Bruins, who had the NHL’s best record during the regular season, play Game 3 Saturday afternoon, mere hours after his announcement. They have a legitimate chance to win the Stanley Cup, which Boston did in 2011 when Rask was the backup to Tim Thomas. Twice, Rask has backstopped the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Final, but lost in 2012 to Chicago and last year to St. Louis.
As clear as it should be what it would mean to Rask to lead Boston to a Cup, his choice to opt out of these playoffs still resulted in some shade being thrown at him, especially after Rask had made honest comments about the hollow feeling of the bubble atmosphere.
“Rask had an .899 save percentage and a 3.00 goals against average in the two games vs. Carolina and had showed little battle in fighting to track the puck through traffic in front while also showing body language that indicated he wasn’t feeling the playoff intensity either,” Joe Haggerty wrote for NBC Boston.
Former Red Sox infielder Lou Merloni, now a Boston sports radio yakker, tweeted, “Like I said, [Bruins coach Bruce] Cassidy needed to sit Tuukka down and see if he is invested in this thing. He obviously wasn’t. Decisions to opt out should be respected. Game 3 of 1st round. Ok. But what if someone were to opt out during the Stanley Cup?”
What if someone did? We obviously don’t have a lot of parallels to draw on for this situation, but Sandy Koufax didn’t start Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it was on Yom Kippur. The Dodgers lost that game, 8-2, with Don Drysdale on the mound, but wound up winning the series as Koufax pitched a three-hit shutout to beat the Minnesota Twins in Game 7.
It didn’t have to unfold that way, but Koufax’s decision would have been no less defensible had Los Angeles lost the series. Did not pitching on Yom Kippur mean Koufax wasn’t “invested” in the Dodgers’ success? Obviously not. Nor does Rask’s decision here mean that he wasn’t.
Mental health is health, and if Rask’s “body language … indicated he wasn’t feeling the playoff intensity,” a couple of days before he decided to take his leave, the interpretation needs to be similar to if he had been favoring an ailing shoulder. Hockey players are famous for battling through injury for as long as they can, because the Cup means so much to them, so why should we believe anything here other than that Rask played through tremendous mental strain until he just couldn’t take it anymore?
Rask was honest about how he felt about the bubble, and we’re always asking athletes to be honest. He put his family first and acknowledged that some things are more important than sports. He knows exactly the opportunity he’s giving up professionally.
If, as Merloni says, “decisions to opt out should be respected,” then everything that happened with Rask over the past week needs to be contextualized and treated with the same respect, not used as fodder to take shots against him.