VANCOUVER — The West Coast was getting soaked Monday, but one of the biggest torrents was the flow of Vancouver Canucks players returning from abroad for another extraordinary National Hockey League season. They just don’t know yet if any of their 56 games will actually be at home.
There is a lot of fine print to the NHL’s return-to-play agreement with its players. But the blaring headline in Canada is: Where will they play?
With the American border still closed indefinitely and domestic travel advisories growing stricter, the Canucks and other teams in the all-Canadian North Division are still in discussion with provincial and federal health authorities for permission to play games home and away.
In British Columbia, hockey proved a tough sell last spring when the NHL was negotiating for sites to stage its Stanley Cup playoffs. Vancouver was in as the Western Conference bubble city until the league found health officials in Alberta more compliant.
But Canucks general manager Jim Benning remains hopeful this time ahead of more critical discussions this week.
“It’s exciting because with this Canadian division, every game is going to have a playoff feel to it,” Benning told Sportsnet. “Those games against Canadian teams are always exciting and the way the schedule is set up, where you play a team two or three times, it’s almost like a mini-playoff series. And when you look at those Canadian teams, every team has a couple of those high-end superstars. I think it’s going to be fun for the fans to watch.”
But it will be a lot less fun for the Canucks — and harder to win those mini-playoff series — if they need to play their “home” games in Edmonton.
“We’re working with the provincial government and federal government to work out any concerns and questions that they have so we are able to play our games out of Vancouver,” Benning said. “With the rules that we have in place for the players, the safety protocols, the players getting tested every day… they’re doing everything they can to be safe for themselves and the communities we fly into. Hopefully, that’s enough to get the confidence of the provincial people and we get to play in our home rink.”
Benning declined to say anything more about where-to-play discussions with the government. Clearly, it is a sensitive issue.
Anyone in Vancouver can get on an airplane and fly to another NHL city in Canada.
They are subject, of course, to provincial health guidelines in each jurisdiction. In Manitoba, this means domestic air passengers arriving from east of the province are subject to quarantine. The Ontario government announced Monday a full lockdown starting Dec. 26.
But airports are open, airlines are running and in most places visitors arriving by air from another Canadian city can make their way to a hotel, go out for a meal or at least takeout, and shop at whichever stores are open.
Certainly, you are allowed to explore the city. Wander around beautiful old Montreal, stroll by the Parliament buildings or Rideau Canal in Ottawa, watch the ice build on the North Saskatchewan River in downtown Edmonton. And you can do all this without anybody testing you for COVID-19.
Yes, there are health screenings, questionnaires, and a temperature check before you board your commercial flight, on which you may be wedged into a middle seat between strangers for several hours. You must wear a mask. But nobody is sticking a swab up your nose in order to travel.
The NHL and its players have agreed on more stringent travel guidelines.
On the road, players will be allowed to leave their hotel for walks and fresh air, but cannot enter a retail establishment. There will be no dining out, no shopping. All meals will be taken at their hotels, and air travel will be exclusively on chartered aircraft, essentially giving teams full control over their isolated environments while in transit. Players won’t be walking through crowded concourses or standing elbow to elbow with other travellers at the baggage carousel before lining up for taxis or waiting for their Uber.
And amid all this, unlike the rest of us, players will be tested and monitored constantly for COVID-19.
It is worth remembering that the league conducted an entire, expanded Stanley Cup playoff last summer in Toronto and Edmonton without a single COVID-19 case arising from 33,174 tests conducted on players and team personnel.
Granted, this tournament was carried out in hugely restrictive bubbles that players are unlikely to ever again submit to, and occurred before the monstrous second wave of this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic thundered ashore.
But there should be little doubt about the NHL’s ability to create a work environment that is far safer than that of nearly any other workforce, nor of the willingness of players to adhere to guidelines.
There are obstacles, protocols to negotiate, of course. But it seems the biggest challenge for governments is optical.
You and I may be able to fly about the country even if provincial authorities recommend against it. But how will it look to have NHL teams jetting around for games when non-essential travel is being discouraged?
Would it be easier for the Canucks to be granted approval for home games in Vancouver had a team of Kelowna beer-leaguers not ignorantly travelled in November to a tournament in Alberta, presumably doing beer-league things before and after games, and bringing a big shipment of coronavirus back to B.C.? Possibly.
That trip of fools brought an uncharacteristically blunt rebuke from the province’s chief medical officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, who said: “There’s a hockey team in the Interior that travelled to Alberta and has come back and now there are dozens of people who are infected and it has spread in the community. We need to stop right now to protect our communities and our families and our health care workers.”
Nobody would argue that. But to equate the risks generated by a travelling beer-league team to what the NHL is trying to do is not only unfair, but absurd.
For most of us awaiting vaccination, one of the safest places to be in Canada this winter would be with an NHL team. But they’re not letting in outsiders. They’re too careful for that.
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