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NHL pools resources to collect loose pucks in bubbles

Using skimmer perfect example of creative problem-solving in Toronto, Edmonton

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

TORONTO -- The strangest sight inside Scotiabank Arena is not the seat covers, giant screens or LED lights. It's the man running through all of that, literally running, climbing over seats, avoiding obstacles, with a swimming pool skimmer.

He has been dubbed the "pool boy."

Have we gone off the deep end? The opposite, actually. In a sink-or-swim situation like this, the NHL needs attention to detail, teamwork and problem-solving, not to mention a sense of humor.

"The bubble's about getting creative with the tools that we have at hand, and everyone's willingness to pitch in is pretty special," said Rachel Segal, NHL senior director of events and entertainment. "We always have that mentality at events, but especially now."

The NHL has never done anything like this before. After pausing the season March 12 due to concerns about the coronavirus, it is returning with a 24-team tournament in two hub cities -- 12 Eastern Conference teams in Toronto, 12 Western Conference teams in Edmonton. Without fans in the stands, it is a made-for-TV event.

The Stanley Cup Qualifiers begin when the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes play Game 1 of a best-of-5 series at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday (12 p.m. ET; SN, TVAS, NBCSN, NHL.TV, FS-CR, MSG).

The NHL has tried to think of everything, but unanticipated problems inevitably pop up. As the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins played the first exhibition Tuesday, Segal noticed pucks lying on the seat covers. Not a clean look for TV.

"It clicked in my brain, like, 'Oh, right, we're going to need to have a puck collector,' which is obviously not usually on our radar when there are fans around scrambling for pucks," Segal said.

But who was going to do it? And how? The seat covers span the width of sections and are many rows high. Some pucks are far out of reach. The seat covers are made from a stretchy fabric too, so the puck retriever cannot climb on them.

Segal texted Brian Murphy, vice president of events for Infinite Scale, the company that designed the seat covers, and Derek King, NHL senior manager of facilities operations.

"Brian's concern obviously was picking a tool that wouldn't damage the seat covers," Segal said.

Hmm …

"I think we just started throwing out ideas," said Anthony Jusino, production manager for Aurora Events, a subcontractor for Hotopp, the company the NHL hired to build the set. "You just kind of start throwing out, 'All right. What can reach?' "

A hockey stick? A mop handle? A squeegee?

"You just start going down the list and start throwing out bad ideas until a good idea pops up," Jusino said.

Murphy suggested a pool skimmer.

But where do you find a pool skimmer in the Secure Zone? What do you do when you can't wait for one to be delivered? They sent a runner outside the bubble to Canadian Tire to buy two pool skimmers for about $90 and had them by the end of the game. 

Jusino and Geoff Quart, technical director for Aurora Productions, were ready to fish out pucks when the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs played the second exhibition that night. The Edmonton hub was alerted so it could procure its own pool skimmers too.

The most pucks land on the seat covers during warmup. It's a big arena, and there is only so much time before the cameras come on. After the Rangers and New York Islanders warmed up Wednesday night, Jusino hustled through the stands with a pool skimmer, Quart with a long cardboard tube.

"Now I'm working on my method of kind of scooping them up," Jusino said. "Depending on how tight the covering is, sometimes you can pop it so that it flips up into the pool skimmer, and sometimes you've just got to kind of put your mitt over it and pull it on back."

They climbed over seats. They avoided spotlights. In the end, they ducked behind a black curtain and returned to the reconfigured suite that serves as their office. One had five pucks, the other four.

"That's what we do," Quart said. "I mean, ultimately, this whole thing is a bunch of problem-solving, right?"

Perhaps the most impressive part of the story is that there haven't been all that many problems to solve, especially under the circumstances.

Aurora Productions usually works on Broadway, not with the Broadway Blueshirts. After Broadway shut down due to the pandemic, Jusino and Quart were thrilled to land a gig with the NHL.

They had to buy 800 yards of black fabric and 500 binder clips -- four Staples' stores worth -- to attach the fabric to some seats this week, after they found they didn't like the look of yellow seats above the seat covers. Jusino became what Segal jokingly called the "pool boy." But otherwise, things have gone swimmingly.

"It's crazy, because there's normally six or seven of these dumb, little, 'How did you fix this?' 'Well …' " Jusino said. "There's always those funny stories. The kit that we came in with was pretty good."

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