Jets fight a dizzying optical illusion

Public will be perfectly safe if team is allowed to play in Winnipeg

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They can keep saying it’s all about public safety until they’re blue in the face, but make no mistake: the ongoing reluctance from multiple provincial government and health officials to allow the NHL to hold games in Canadian markets this winter is about something else entirely.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/12/2020 (704 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

They can keep saying it’s all about public safety until they’re blue in the face, but make no mistake: the ongoing reluctance from multiple provincial government and health officials to allow the NHL to hold games in Canadian markets this winter is about something else entirely.

Optics.

At a time when frustrated citizens across the country are once again being ordered to lock down and limit contacts during the holidays due to COVID-19 numbers that remain out of control, there is considerable worry about the public backlash that will occur if professional sports teams are given what some will see as a free pass.

Some provincial politicians believe Canadians will be upset they can't see their families while NHL hockey players will be able to gather together and travel. (Jason Franson / The Canadian Press files)

“They’ve made it very difficult on the NHL thus far,” a league source told me Tuesday.

And so this little cat-and-mouse game has gone into overtime, with exactly three weeks until the puck drops on the 2021 season and the Winnipeg Jets, Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens still having no idea of where they’re going to set up shop.

Memo to Manitoba, British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec: It’s time to quit playing around. It’s time to give the green light.

I don’t come by that opinion easily, or lightly. After all, I’m the guy who wrote in this space a couple weeks ago that I had concerns about any league hitting the ice or taking the field while we’re in the worst of the pandemic. I believe it risks sending the wrong message to the masses, especially those who have repeatedly balked at following health directives, and gives the impression that it’s “business as usual” even when that’s anything but the case.

And yet, here we are. The NFL soldiers on, the NBA got underway Tuesday night, and the NHL is on the clock, with training camps set for Jan. 3 and a 56-game season starting Jan. 13.

The optics — there’s that word again — are questionable. I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t at least understand where the decision-makers are coming from when it comes to allowing teams to play right now. In a nutshell, they’re worried how it looks. I get that. But where they really lose me is claiming it has anything to do with keeping all of us safe. Fact is, the seven Canadian NHL clubs are likely going to post virtually no risk to the public based on the extensive protocols that have been reached.

Consider this: sure, non-essential travel is discouraged, but every member of the Jets can visit any Canadian NHL city right now and not have to worry about any kind of quarantine — even if that travel occurs on one of the many commercial flights that operate out of James Richardson on a daily basis? Once they land, they’d be free to go grocery shopping, even head to a restaurant or lounge or visit family and friends, at least in some provinces.

The same would go for any other Canadian team criss-crossing the country, with the exception of the Maple Leafs, Senators and Canadiens coming to Manitoba. We are the only province that currently has a 14-day quarantine in place, but only for those travelling from the east. There is no requirement for anyone to be tested before, during or after these travels.

So how does it make sense to forbid these same hockey players to fly to these same markets on a chartered flight, then be taken directly to either the rink or team hotel where they will remain the entire time, with the exception of outdoor walks? They will not be allowed to have any guests in their room, do any kind of shopping or in-person dining, or even use the gym. They won’t even have to deal with us media types, who will be restricted to asking questions via Zoom conference rather than face-to-face.

Their contact will be mostly limited to teammates and personnel living under the same regulations, and their opponents on the ice, who will be in the same boat as well. And everyone will be tested on a daily basis, with almost immediate results and extensive rules in place should there be a positive. But, based on last summer’s successful return to play — more than 33,000 tests and no positives — we know the chances of that are rather remote given the strict environment the NHL will operate under.

All of this is outlined in an exhaustive list of travel protocols released Tuesday afternoon by the NHL and NHLPA. From rules governing elevator use to a requirement to keep hotel windows open, if possible, for added air flow, seemingly no stone has been left unturned.

So what exactly is the issue here?

B.C. is said to be the biggest holdout, and they played hardball with the NHL last summer when Vancouver was considered a hub city favourite, only to refuse to make required concessions on the issue of contact tracing. So the league chose Edmonton (and Toronto) to hold the playoffs.

This time, there is some speculation the hesitation is tied to a recent outbreak traced to a Kelowna beer league hockey team that violated protocols, went to Alberta and brought the virus back home with them. But it’s absurd to somehow hold that against the NHL, which has both considerable resources along with a recent track record to be given a bit of a rope to control its own environment.

“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,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning said Monday of the ongoing back-and-forth.

The Jets have not yet made anyone available from the organization to speak this week, citing the fluid situation and wanting some resolution first, but I don’t believe Manitoba, or Alberta for that matter, are standing in the way. In addition to the fine folks on the West Coast, Ontario and Quebec are both reportedly expressing concerns as well.

If all provinces don’t ultimately sign off, it’s likely the seven teams will move to one location, likely Edmonton, to at least start the new season in a hub environment, but that will only add more dollars and cents, at a time when revenues are in short supply.

This issue should ultimately boil down to common sense. Freezing out the Canadian NHL clubs from their home markets this winter would have nothing to do with protecting citizens, and everything to do with saving face in the court of public opinion.

Let them play.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

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.

History

Updated on Wednesday, December 23, 2020 9:58 AM CST: Corrects typo.

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