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Baggot: Life in the bubble not slowing Pavelski down

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MADISON, Wis. — In a span of six weeks, Joe Pavelski has gone from an apron-wearing entrepreneur to an NHL playoff headline-maker.

One minute he’s behind the counter, helping assemble and distribute meals at LeanFeast, a 5-month-old Madison eatery that he actively supports because it reflects his healthy lifestyle. The next he’s scoring a landmark hat trick in a critical Stanley Cup tournament victory.

Of course, Pavelski is having a ball in all this despite the fact the former Wisconsin men’s hockey standout is navigating the most disruptive season of his 14-year professional career.

Pavelski changed teams and addresses during the off-season, signing a lucrative free-agent deal with Dallas last July after 13 celebrated years in San Jose.

Pavelski saw his popular coach abruptly fired in December when Jim Montgomery was let go due to substance abuse issues and Rick Bowness took over on an interim basis.

Arguably the biggest adjustment for Pavelski occurred in March when the COVID-19 pandemic forced every major sports league in the U.S. to shut down, including the NHL.

Like everyone else in the league, Pavelski headed for home until circumstances enabled the NHL to devise a plan to resume staging its postseason. While the coronavirus break resulted in some hands-on experience for Pavelski at LeanFeast and allowed him tremendous family time with wife Sarah and 9-year-old son Nate at their home outside Madison, it also led to a postseason rife with strange sacrifices.

When he wasn’t working out during the unusual break — roller blading, lifting, shooting, skating — Pavelski was familiarizing himself with the eatery on University Avenue overseen by partners Morgan Klein and Jay Ogle. Pavelski said he got to participate in some employee training and see the bones of the operation.

“I had a lot of fun doing it, actually,” he said. “It was fun to be around and help out.”

The time away from hockey also enabled Pavelski to be with his family. He found almost daily joy golfing, fishing and wakeboarding on Lake Kegonsa with Nate. That ended in early July.

“To go away from all that is tough,” Pavelski said. “It puts a lot of stress on the families. It’s the sacrifices that come with what we do at times.”

Pavelski last saw his wife and son in person on July 5 when he drove from Clear Lake, Iowa — his in-laws have a vacation home there — to Dallas for a 13-day training camp that began on July 13. The Stars entourage headed to Edmonton on July 26.

When NHL games resumed on Aug. 1 in Canada, a 24-team bracket was split between two sites — Edmonton in the West and Toronto in the East — in order to minimize COVID-19 exposure. On one hand, meaningful games were actually being played, which was good for players and fans alike. On the other, all matches have been confined to empty arenas — Rogers Place in Edmonton and Scotiabank Arena in Toronto — teams have been sequestered in the two bubble sites and all parties have undergone daily testing to keep the coronavirus at bay.

Pavelski said the bubble atmosphere, now down to 16 teams playing best-of-seven series, is about what he expected, right down to the COVID-19 tests. One day it’s a nasal swab. The next it’s a throat swab.

“We have everything we need here for what we need to do,” he said. “Everything’s really convenient.”

The hotels are connected to the two arenas and are separated by a five-minute indoor walk. A large ballroom is set aside for breakfast and post-game meals. Pavelski said a ping-pong table and three big-screen TVs — one devoted to video games — are available to the team. Card games are popular diversions, too.

“We’re also fans,” Pavelski said. “There’s so much hockey being played right now. There’s games on all the time, so we’re watching games.”

If they so desire, players can watch other teams play in person, utilizing designated areas in the arena. Of course, masks are required.

There’s a difference between playing and watching games in the bubble, Pavelski said.

“The games in the bubble with no fans are interesting,” he noted. “When you’re playing and you’re into it, you forget sometimes.

“I had a penalty the other night and sitting in the box it was quiet. It was weird. Usually you’ve got the power-play chants going and fans are getting excited for it, but you don’t have any of that.”

One can only imagine the noise level had a home sellout crowd watched Pavelski, a center, record his first career playoff hat trick like he did Sunday during a 5-4 overtime win over Calgary. His third conversion came with 11.9 seconds left in regulation and helped Dallas draw even in the series 2-2.

What feels better than that?

“Not a whole lot,” Pavelski replied in a text. “Needed that win, though, to make it count.”

Joe Pavelski celebrates a goal against the Calgary Flames

Pavelski, 36, joined Rene Bourque, Tony Granato, Mark Johnson and Gary Suter as former Badgers who accounted for an NHL playoff hat trick.

With 53 career NHL playoff goals, Pavelski has more than any other Wisconsin player and ranks third among American-born players behind Joe Mullen (60) and Mike Modano (58).

Pavelski, who helped lead the Badgers to the NCAA title in 2006, said faux crowd noise is pumped into the arena to acknowledge big saves or goals. But there are times when it seems like you’re in an empty building.

“As a spectator in the stands, it is quiet,” he said. “You can hear guys calling for pucks. You can hear guys yelling at the refs and jawing with each other once in a while.”

The bubble life will continue for the Stars as long as they keep winning, which could carry them into early October when the finals are staged in Edmonton.

Pavelski has 369 goals, 423 assists and 792 points in 1,030 career regular-season outings in the NHL. He’s played in three all-star games and two Winter Olympics with Team USA. Remarkable for a guy chosen in the seventh round, 205th overall, in the 2003 NHL draft.

Of course, Pavelski would like to add a Stanley Cup win to that resume knowing that it will come with an unusual price.

When will he see his loved ones again?

“Everyone’s hoping for a nice deep run to the finals,” he said. “From what we know, families can’t come until conference finals and Stanley Cup finals and then it’s only immediate families.”

According to Pavelski, family members would have to spend four days quarantined in the hotel before he could see them and pass four COVID-19 tests.

“You miss them,” he said. “You really do.”

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