Opinion

I hate to burst your bubble Canadian hockey fans, but the NHL has no choice but to continue shutting you out of its rinks this spring while bringing the four playoff clubs into one very familiar, and frustrating, environment.

I hate to burst your bubble Canadian hockey fans, but the NHL has no choice but to continue shutting you out of its rinks this spring while bringing the four playoff clubs into one very familiar, and frustrating, environment.

That's right. I'm talking Hub City 2: Electric Boogaloo.

Last summer's unique post-season went off without a hitch in Edmonton and Toronto, with nary a positive COVID-19 test in sight once the 24 qualifying teams got settled while following strict health and safety protocols, eventually crowning a champion two months later. At the time, it was the only way to finish the 2019-20 season as the deadly global pandemic was still in its early stages.

Tampa Bay Lightning centre Steven Stamkos hoists the Stanley Cup after defeating the Dallas Stars in the NHL's Edmonton bubble in September. (Jason Franson / The Canadian Press files)

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Tampa Bay Lightning centre Steven Stamkos hoists the Stanley Cup after defeating the Dallas Stars in the NHL's Edmonton bubble in September. (Jason Franson / The Canadian Press files)

As recently as a couple weeks ago, such a move seemed unnecessary for this 2021 campaign, which began in mid-January and is slated to run through early July. Sure, there have been some bumps in the road, but virus numbers were improving, vaccines were increasing and outbreaks on several teams were in the rear-view mirror. Most American teams began opening their doors, with some buildings now regularly drawing thousands of spectators.

North of the border, hope was springing eternal. The all-Canadian division was the only one that hadn't been impacted in any way. In fact, organizations such as the Winnipeg Jets began quietly preparing behind-the-scenes for the potential return of fans as early as mid-May, when the run to Lord Stanley begins. It was seen as the light at the end of a very dark tunnel, and the opportunity to finally start bringing some much-needed revenue back into the empty coffers.

But all of that wishing and planning and optimism just came to a screeching halt based on what is currently going down in Vancouver. A game-changer, and not in a good way.

It has been two weeks since the Canucks last played a game, a 5-1 loss on home ice to the Jets. When, or if, they hit the ice again this year is anybody's guess. As of Tuesday, 18 regular players, along with three coaches and a taxi squad member are all in COVID-19 protocol. Based on reports, the majority of them have tested positive. Some have experienced severe symptoms, including vomiting and nausea. At least one had to get IV treatments. Many family members are sick as well.

An arena worker removes the net from the ice after the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames game was postponed due to a positive COVID-19 test result last Wednesday. (Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press files)

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An arena worker removes the net from the ice after the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames game was postponed due to a positive COVID-19 test result last Wednesday. (Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press files)

You can count the number of healthy players on one hand. The best-case scenario is they all make a full recovery. I don't want to even fathom the alternatives.

This is, unquestionably, the worst outbreak to hit the NHL. And that's saying something, considering the Dallas Stars, Carolina Hurricanes, Vegas Golden Knights, Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, Minnesota Wild, Colorado Avalanche, Philadelphia Flyers, Boston Bruins and, most recently, the Montreal Canadiens have all dealt with multiple positive cases that had led to shutdowns and postponed games.

What makes this the biggest concern yet is twofold. Firstly, the P.1 Brazilian variant of the virus is said to be involved, which is more transmissible than the original strain. This could explain why one positive test (Adam Gaudette) quickly turned into a full-blown outbreak. It's also a more dangerous variant, especially for younger people, which the Canucks could certainly attest to.

The other is timing. We are now just five weeks away from the scheduled start of the playoffs. Vancouver still has 19 games remaining on their schedule, and it's looking increasingly bleak like there's a way to fit those in, given their current state. It's not the end of the world considering they are far out of the playoff race, and perhaps some otherwise meaningless contests against fellow bottom-feeders in Calgary and Ottawa could ultimately just be scrubbed.

The NHL could just use point percentage to decide draft order. But the bigger issue is what would happen if a playoff team were to be stricken like this?

Fans sit in the stands watching warmup before the New Jersey Devils and the New York Islanders on March 2. It was the first time fans were allowed in the Prudential Center under New Jersey's new COVID-19 rules. (Kathy Willens / The Associated Press files)

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Fans sit in the stands watching warmup before the New Jersey Devils and the New York Islanders on March 2. It was the first time fans were allowed in the Prudential Center under New Jersey's new COVID-19 rules. (Kathy Willens / The Associated Press files)

Imagine the Jets, Maple Leafs, Oilers or Canadiens were to be blindsided like this in a month from now. What happens then? Do the playoffs just grind to a halt for multiple weeks until they can, hopefully, get back to health and return to action? Do they forfeit their series? Does the fifth-place team take their place? Those would turn this all into a farce, frankly.

All of these scenarios are likely keeping league executives awake at night. Which is why returning to a bubble is the only option to pretty much guarantee they go off without a hitch. This isn't some wild, pie-in-the-sky idea floated out by yours truly, either. I'm told the NHL is very much exploring this possibility based on recent events, which only makes sense.

This would likely just be a made-in-Canada solution, for the first two rounds of the playoffs, and not the full-scale operation we saw last year. You likely don't need it south of the border for the other dozen playoff teams. The majority of players either have been, or will be, vaccinated by then. if you haven't noticed, the U.S. rollout is putting ours to shame.

Needles in the arms of Canadian-based players may still be months away given the current tortoise-like pace around here. And no, they should not be allowed to jump the queue. Which leaves the NHL in a very difficult position, with variant numbers on the rise and the predicted "third wave" on the way.

The Vancouver situation is a stark reminder that we're not out of the woods yet. The league has too much at stake to come this far, only to risk having it blow up in its faces. Fortunately, they have a proven method of keeping the virus at bay while continuing to play, one they've successfully pulled off.

As much as it pains me to say it — and as difficult as this is going to be for the league, its northern playoff teams and fan-bases eager to get back in the rink to cheer them on — there's only one clear option right now.

We're going to have to go back to the bubble.

 

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.

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