Since the pandemic began 15 months ago, pro sports have acted as a proverbial canary in the coal mine when it comes to the re-opening of society.
The initial baby steps of bubbles, hub cities and empty rinks and stadiums amidst ongoing public lockdowns eventually gave way to ambitious re-opening plans south of the border and big leaps of faith including rapidly growing crowds. Not so much here in Canada, where the status quo has largely remained while many have been left to cast a wary, albeit somewhat jealous eye, to our American neighbours.
That's a good thing from my perspective. Better to be safe than sorry, and I'll take slow and steady over fast and furious when it comes to this particular race.
But the pace is about to pick up, and once again the sports world will be playing a prominent role in providing a beacon of hope that life as we once knew it might be making a long-awaited comeback. Apparently, all it took was me ducking out for a week of holidays for the local landscape to change in a significant way. In the words of the great Bob Cole, "Everything is happening!"
The Canadian Football League firmed up plans for a July 10 start to training camp ahead of an Aug. 5 start to the 2021 season which will include Blue Bombers fans in the stands at IG Field, perhaps as much as 50 per cent capacity off the hop with the potential to expand as early as Labour Day. Finally, the chance to celebrate the 2019 Grey Cup victory that seems like it happened a lifetime ago.
Eight clubs from the Canadian Premier League including Valour FC have gathered here in River City to kick off their campaign this weekend. And the vagabond Winnipeg Goldeyes, forced to play out of Fargo (last year) and Tennessee (this year), could soon be pointing their bus back to Shaw Park, allowing locals to root, root root for the home team.
Nationally, the Montreal Canadiens are now welcoming 3,500 fans for every playoff game. The Toronto Blue Jays are aiming for a return to Rogers Centre after bouncing from Dunedin to Buffalo.
More importantly, we hit our July 1 vaccination targets on Monday here in Manitoba (at least 70 per cent of population with one jab, 25 per cent of population fully vaccinated). That will pave the way for relaxed public health orders starting this weekend, details of which will be announced Wednesday. And while they won't initially be as wide-open as what Alberta and Saskatchewan are on the cusp of, it should make for a more enjoyable summer provided we don't screw this up.
In addition to a couple rounds of golf, some quality outdoor family visits and daily walks and runs, I used my "staycation" time to join Team Double Dosed, following up my initial AstraZenca shot in mid-April with a Pfizer chaser last week. That will allow me to safely cover my second straight Stanley Cup Final and not have to worry about a 14-day quarantine when I return from the United States next month based on the new federal border measures announced Monday.
Unlike last year's surreal environment in an empty Rogers Place in Edmonton, the silver chalice will be raised in front of full houses in either Tampa Bay, New York, Las Vegas, or a partially-filled Bell Centre in Montreal. Oh, how sweet that's going to sound.
Don't confuse this for a victory lap. We're not out of the woods, particularly with variants throwing potential curveballs at the best-laid plans. Look at the series between Vegas and Montreal as an example of how quickly things can turn. First it was Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme testing positive for COVID-19 over the weekend, taking himself out of action for at least two weeks. And that was quickly followed by Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon getting stricken by the virus as well.
Fortunately, no players from either team have been impacted thus far, which would qualify as a worst-case scenario for the NHL.
Jon Rahm won the U.S. Open on Sunday, barely two weeks removed from his own COVID-19 infection which likely cost him US$1.8 million. The Spanish golfer had a six-shot lead through three rounds of the Memorial Tournament but was forced to withdraw. Rahm admitted a self-inflicted delay in getting vaccinated backfired on him, and hopefully, others learn from his mistake.
There's no question sports have provided a valuable distraction and stress-reliever for many during these difficult times, a theme that became apparent during the just-completed Winnipeg Jets season. Fans couldn't be there in person at Bell MTS Place, but they were in spirit. And that wasn't lost on the players and coaches who regularly brought it up during Zoom interviews.
Absence has made the heart grow fonder.
The biggest concern I've always had with the games going on was the risky "business as usual" message it was sending at a time when vigilance and adherence to strict health and safety protocols were vital. Far too many were playing by their own set of rules, which is why we've been in this mess for so long.
It was last June that Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle spoke out about what he felt was a rushed return to action, with case numbers still out of control and vaccines still being worked on in labs around the world. "Sports are like the reward of a functioning society. And we're trying to just bring it back, even though we've taken none of the steps to flatten the curve, whatever you want to say," said Doolittle.
He wasn't wrong. And for every step forward, there have been plenty going in the opposite direction, as well. But now, it feels like we're finally gaining traction and truly getting somewhere, with some of those long-awaited rewards just around the corner.
And sports, as they have from the start, will be leading the way.
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.