August 4, 2020

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Sports world goes dark

Sudden sweeping suspension of events at all levels as North America attempts to slow COVID-19 pandemic

Opinion

CALGARY — It was the day the sports world went dark, a remarkably swift and sweeping blackout that brought all the fun and games to a screeching halt as we continue to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.

It wouldn’t have been an easy decision for the deep-thinkers, considering the ramifications of such an unprecedented move, but it was, without question, the correct and only decision.

From the NHL to the AHL to junior and high school hockey, to world curling to the NCAA to MLB to pro soccer and well beyond, this is simply not the time or the place to be bringing large crowds of people together to cheer on their favourite teams or players — especially with experts in infectious disease pleading with citizens to begin practising what they are calling "social distancing."

As much as it might pain many of us, allowing the show to go on any longer would have sent the message that money is all that matters, the health and safety of everyone else be damned.

Simply burying our collective heads in the sand and hoping it all quietly goes away was not an option.

The gates to the empty parking lots at the Gila River Arena, home of the Arizona Coyotes NHL hockey club, are closed and locked after the Coyotes' scheduled hockey game with the Vancouver Canucks was canceled Thursday. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The gates to the empty parking lots at the Gila River Arena, home of the Arizona Coyotes NHL hockey club, are closed and locked after the Coyotes' scheduled hockey game with the Vancouver Canucks was canceled Thursday. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Look, I’d love nothing more than to be sitting here today writing about the latest impressive Winnipeg Jets victory, their season-high fourth in a row on Wednesday night in Edmonton, and how this tight-knit and suddenly healthy team is really on a roll.

But that doesn’t matter right now.

I’d love to be opining about their increasingly promising playoff chances, with three weeks left in the regular season and two more big tests on this road trip coming up Saturday night here in Calgary, followed by Sunday in Vancouver.

But those aren’t happening right now.

Instead, I sit in a downtown Calgary hotel room, waiting more than an hour (and counting) on hold in an attempt to hastily rearrange my previously booked flights and get home as soon as possible.

"We’re experiencing higher than usual call volumes due to coronavirus," the message repeats over and over and over again. No kidding.

The seats are empty at the Amway Center in Orlando, home of the NBA's Orlando Magic, on Thursday after the NBA suspended the season due to the coronavirus. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

The seats are empty at the Amway Center in Orlando, home of the NBA's Orlando Magic, on Thursday after the NBA suspended the season due to the coronavirus. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

At the Edmonton airport Thursday morning, a couple hours before NHL commissioner Gary Bettman officially followed the NBA’s lead and suspended the season, I expected to see tumbleweeds blowing by me given how deserted it was. I set a new personal best in going from my curbside Uber drop-off to my gate, completing the task in approximately four minutes. That included breezing through a security line that literally had not a single person in it, as several agents stood around waiting for some action.

"Coronavirus," one of them said in response to my query about why it was so empty.

Once on the plane to Calgary, it felt a bit like I was on a personal charter. There couldn’t have been more than 20 of us, with about 75 per cent of the seats empty. Several of the passengers, not surprisingly, were wearing protective masks.

A sign of the times, for sure. And the fear, of course, is that the worst is still yet to come.

Like a lot of you, sport is truly an escape for me. On a personal level, I’ve been a participant, volunteer and coach for almost my entire life, and it’s been a huge part of our family, including two very active and involved children, now both teenagers.

On a professional level, moving into the Free Press toy department was my one-way ticket out of the gloom and doom of spending 21 years on the justice beat in Winnipeg, with a daily front row seat to the worst society had to offer.

The empty visitors NHL hockey locker room at Capital One Arena in Washington, Thursday. The NHL is following the NBA’s lead and suspending its season because of the coronavirus pandemic.(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

The empty visitors NHL hockey locker room at Capital One Arena in Washington, Thursday. The NHL is following the NBA’s lead and suspending its season because of the coronavirus pandemic.(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Since leaving my life of crime (writing) behind and getting out for good behaviour, I haven’t looked back. The next truly bad day I have on this job will be my first. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed by what’s happening right now. I love watching sports, writing about sports and talking about sports. That’s going to be difficult to do for the next while.

On the Jets beat specifically, it feels like we were just starting to get to the really good part of a compelling movie or novel, doesn’t it? What if we never get to find out how it ends?

There was talk of playing in empty arenas, of course, but that would have likely just delayed the inevitable — that an athlete was eventually going to get sick. And when that happened, Wednesday night in Oklahoma City with Utah Jazz Rudy Gobert coming down with COVID-19 (and later a teammate), you knew what was coming next.

Gobert is being mocked and ridiculed in some circles, especially for the fact he made light of the whole situation in the days before his diagnosis. He even issued an extensive apology Thursday on his social media, but in a way, the basketball star may have clumsily saved leagues like the NHL and NBA from themselves.

We’re entering a great unknown going forward. Huge amounts of money will likely be lost. Championships will not be awarded in some cases. Opportunities will vanish, final chances squandered.

"But it’s just the flu," some will cry. "What’s the big deal?"

Mark Chipman, executive chairman at True North Sports + Entertainment, speaks to the media at Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg on Thursday.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Mark Chipman, executive chairman at True North Sports + Entertainment, speaks to the media at Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg on Thursday.

Except it’s not just the flu. And it is a big deal. One only has to look at a country such as Italy, which has completely shut down as their medical system rapidly becomes overwhelmed with patients, leaving some critically ill without the care they desperate need.

The most vulnerable in society need our full attention and resources, and they need to know the infrastructure will be there for them if they need it rather than collapsing under its own weight.

Ironically, at a time when we all could really use a distraction to take our minds off the rather bleak happenings in the real world, taking a business-as-usual approach would only make things worse.

I’d love nothing more than to be able to look back at this all in a few weeks, or a few months, and say it was all a big overreaction. And even if that’s the case, it will still have been worth it.

Before we can get back to losing ourselves in sports again, we need to hit pause, take a step back and ensure we’re all taking care of ourselves, and each other. Then, and only then, can we get back to the fun and games.

 

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

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.

Read full biography

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