Sports world not immune to coronavirus concerns, uncertainty

There are several videos circulating right now showing stressed-out shoppers sprinting down the aisles of Walmart and Costco trying to get their desperate hands on toilet paper, hand sanitizer and bottled water. 

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/03/2020 (997 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There are several videos circulating right now showing stressed-out shoppers sprinting down the aisles of Walmart and Costco trying to get their desperate hands on toilet paper, hand sanitizer and bottled water. 

Given their frenzied state, you almost expect to see King Kong or some other mythical beast emerge behind them a few seconds later.

There will be no scrums with Jets players such as goalie Connor Hellebuyck during the current COVID-19 scare. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

In this case, the monster everyone fears is COVID-19, otherwise known as the novel coronavirus racing across the globe. And I imagine the headquarters of major league sports operations look a little bit like those jam-packed stores these days as executives are pulled in different directions trying to balance their business interests with the health of their athletes and fans in the midst of a global pandemic. 

Case in point: what went down Monday at Bell MTS Place.

You’ll be happy to know I didn’t sneeze in the direction of Mark Scheifele or cough in the vicinity of Andrew Copp. Not that I ever would, at least not intentionally. My mother taught me better than that. But the fact is I didn’t get close enough to any members of the Winnipeg Jets following the morning skate to unknowingly spread any germs that might be lurking.

That’s because the organization decided to temporarily make the Jets locker room a no-fly zone when it comes to the media. That means no more face-to-face, one-on-one chats, the kind that typically build relationships and lead to feature, news and profile stories. Instead, there will be regular group gab sessions in which requested players are brought to a podium, answering questions from scribes at a safe distance. Everyone covering the team will end up with the same pool of quotes to wade through.

Is it overblown? Jets defenceman Nathan Beaulieu suggested Monday it’s “maybe a little bit too precautionary,” and you only had to look down the hall to see the visiting Arizona Coyotes, who opted to keep their room open.

No, I didn’t go sneeze in the direction of Nick Schmaltz or cough in the vicinity of Clayton Keller.

As of late afternoon, there was no formal policy in place for teams to follow. But that changed around 6 p.m. when the NHL, along with the NBA, MLB and MLS released a joint statement saying all rooms would be closed to non-team personnel effective Tuesday. 

A quick aside: just what are they smoking in Denver? A sign posted outside the Colorado Avalanche room Sunday informed media it would remain open provided there are “no handshakes, no knuckles, no hugs and no sitting at stalls.” 

The next time I see a player embrace a media member will be the first time. Wring our necks, sure, but a hug? Get out of here with that nonsense. 

Sure, these restrictions are going to make our jobs a bit more challenging in terms of trying to come up with unique, daily content, but in the grand scheme of things, that’s of little consequence. 

All players will be interviewed now behind a podium. Head coach Paul Maurice is used to that already. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Of greater concern should be the possibility of where this all may be headed, and the sinking feeling that this is just the tip of the iceberg and we ain’t seen nothing yet.

Does closing the door to the dressing room open the door to much more restrictive measures to come, just four weeks out from the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs? Postponing games? Playing in empty venues? Cancelling games altogether? None of it can be ruled out.

“What’s happening is evolving not only on a day-to-day basis in terms of us staying on top of developments, but it’s almost hour to hour,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Monday in a statement emailed to me from the league.

We’re already seeing much more extreme crackdowns overseas, in some of the hardest-hit areas such as Italy, where all sport has now been suspended until April 3, and in Japan, where the top professional baseball league has postponed the scheduled March 20 start of the season. 

The Summer Olympics, set to begin July 24 in Tokyo, are very much in limbo. 

Closer to home, the IIHF has cancelled the upcoming Women’s World Hockey Championship in Nova Scotia. The prestigious Indian Wells Masters tennis tournament, which was set to begin Monday in California, was wiped out. Other upcoming events may face a similar fate.

NBA insiders are reporting that a critical conference call is set for Wednesday with team owners and governors in which potentially drastic steps will be discussed, including playing games without fans. The start of the Major League Baseball season, set for later this month, could also be affected.

As we saw with the joint statement Monday evening, the NHL is watching closely what their more popular big sporting brothers do while speaking with officials from the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Health Canada on a regular basis. 

Question: If the NHL is so worried a handful of sportswriters might infect the players, at what point do they exercise the same level of concern and responsibility for their arena staff and fans? After all, there’s a much greater chance that one of the 15,000 people inside Bell MTS Place Monday night has coronavirus than the 10 or so of us not allowed to get up close and personal with the players. 

The answer, of course, comes down to money. Shutting out the fans would hit teams where it hurts the most — in the wallet. That’s clearly a risk they’re willing to take, at least for now. 

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks to the media before Game 1 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Final between the St. Louis Blues and the Boston Bruins in Boston on May 27, 2019. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says the league is "aware of and focused on all possibilities" related to the new coronavirus outbreak. Speaking at the conclusion of the league's general managers meetings Wednesday, Bettman said the NHL has been in communication with both the Centers for Disease Control in the United States and Health Canada on the widening crisis. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Charles Krupa

The fact is, sports are supposed to entertain us, to take us on an emotional journey filled with extreme highs and crushing lows, to bring us together and build relationships and memories. To give us an escape from everyday realities, which can be downright depressing at times.

Gathering to watch sports is not supposed to get us sick or — worst-case scenario — kill us. 

“Obviously, it’s a general concern for the public for how fast it’s spreading and how many areas it’s hitting,” Jets defenceman Dylan DeMelo said Monday.  “At the end of the day, for us, sports have to come second to those health needs and we have to look out for the public.”

Hard as it may be to fathom, that could ultimately mean hitting pause on our favourite spring pastime.

No, there’s no reason to panic. But in these still-early days of trying to get a handle on just how serious this coronavirus may be, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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