GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Todd Nelson has been an assistant coach with the Dallas Stars for two seasons. But he never dreamed that his first Stanley Cup Final would happen like this, in the middle of a pandemic.
“This is really special, just to be part of this," Nelson said. "This is going to be history making- life in the bubble and playing for a Stanley Cup”
When the NHL returned to action in July, the league placed Western Conference teams in a bubble in Edmonton, Alberta and Eastern Conference teams in a bubble in Toronto, Ontario. Tampa Bay advanced out of the East and now the Stanley Cup Finals are being played in Edmonton, where the Stars have been stationed for nine and a half weeks.
Nelson says that it's been a challenge being in the bubble for that long, but playoff time adds an extra layer of excitement. "We’ve been playing games for the last two and a half months here and it was weird to start with, but as soon as the playoffs started you can see the intensity ramp up and you’re in the heat of the moment.“
The 51-year-old joined the Stars coaching staff in 2018 after spending the previous three seasons as the Grand Rapids Griffins head coach. However, one of the men who helped bring him to Dallas, head coach Jim Montgomery, was fired in December. Rick Bowness took over on an interim basis and the coaching staff has been trying to prove their worth ever since. A task Nelson feels was accomplished with a birth in the Cup Finals.
“I think so, a lot of us felt that way. You know Dallas hasn’t been to the Cup Finals in 20 years. I think after we won the Western Conference we all felt really good about ourselves, but like every hockey coach you get greedy and we want the Stanley Cup.”
Now that they've made it this far, the entire Stars coaching staff knows they can't be outworked.
"We’re working our tails off as coaches, making sure we don’t miss anything." aid Nelson. "We don’t want any surprises from Tampa Bay. They’re thinking the same thing. Right now it’s a chess match, but at the end of the day it comes down to heart, hard work and character".
Nelson became the third player ever to win the Calder Cup as a player, an assistant coach and as a head coach-- In 1994 he won as a defenseman with the Portland Pirates, he won again in 2008 as an assistant coach with the Chicago Wolves and, finally, as the Griffins head coach in 2017. He also won the Colonial Cup twice in Muskegon as the Fury head coach as well. He says the chance to add his name to the greatest trophy in sports is special, but he’s not ready to reflect on his career achievements just yet.
"You know what, I’ll have plenty of time after we get out of 'Shawshank' here to reflect on this. I’m hoping it works out the right way, I’m not going to say it but we all know what that means. This is something that every player since you were five years old dreamt of being a part of."
Game three of the Stanley Cup Finals is Wednesday night at 8 pm ET. The series is tied 1-1.