Opinion

We're No. 1!

It's a triumphant claim the Winnipeg Jets would love to make if they find themselves in the heavily rumoured all-Canadian division for the upcoming NHL season, where national bragging rights in addition to valuable points would be on the line with every tantalizing head-to-head meeting.

Unfortunately, it's a dubious claim the local hockey club can currently make about their home market when it comes to recent COVID-19 cases among their northern neighbours. Manitoba leads the country with an average of 31.8 new daily infections per 100,000 people over the past week, with an alarming test positivity rate sitting in double-digits that puts us far above what rivals in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal are experiencing.

That is posing a significant problem for numerous reasons, including when it comes to deciding where the Jets will play the majority of their games in a new campaign that could start as early as Jan. 1. While dropping the puck in an otherwise empty Bell MTS Place hasn't been ruled out, there's growing concern about getting permission from government and health officials given the ongoing code-red status in the province.

... it still takes a significant amount of manpower for a typical game–day production that would bring hundreds of people into the facility, none of whom would be living in a bubble like they were for the Stanley Cup playoffs in Edmonton.

After all, every rink has gone dark, along with non-essential businesses, in the closest we've come to a lockdown. Sure, the Jets would at least start the season playing without fans, but it still takes a significant amount of manpower for a typical game-day production that would bring hundreds of people into the facility, none of whom would be living in a bubble like they were for the Stanley Cup playoffs in Edmonton and Toronto.

How would that fly given our sorry state of affairs?

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly didn't single Winnipeg out by name, but it's pretty obvious our neck of the woods was top of mind in comments late last week about return-to-play planning and the obstacles in their way.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

JOHN WOODS/THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

"If possible to do so, I think our clubs would much prefer to play in their home buildings even if that means not before fans," Daly told NHL.com. "Having said that, in some markets, if we dropped the puck tomorrow night, I'm not sure all markets could accommodate a game just by local regulation and health restrictions."

With the clock ticking louder every day for the league to make a decision, the Jets could be forced to take their show on the road if things don't quickly get back under control. Daly mentioned the possibility of at least some teams operating out of "hubs," where they would play a number of games in a short time, then return to their home market for a week or so to reunite with family and practise before the next trip.

That would be a big problem for a small-market team such as the Jets, which hasn't had any meaningful revenue come in since mid-March and is spending to near the salary cap. If nothing else, at least playing half their dates at Bell MTS Place would significantly reduce costs versus having to spend the entire season in enemy territory, which would only add to existing losses.

"If possible to do so, I think our clubs would much prefer to play in their home buildings even if that means not before fans. Having said that, in some markets, if we dropped the puck tomorrow night, I'm not sure all markets could accommodate a game just by local regulation and health restrictions." — NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly

At this point, nobody in the organization is saying publicly how bad the damage could be.

"Until an NHL season has been approved for 2021, and the dynamics in which our team would play have been determined, it would be pure speculation to share how that would impact True North going forward," Rob Wozny, the vice-president of communications for True North Sports and Entertainment, the company that owns the Jets and the arena, told me this week.

Wozny said there have been conversations with provincial government and health officials regarding the use of the downtown barn this winter, but he wouldn't say how fruitful those talks have been.

Bell MTS Place.

Bell MTS Place.

"True North is like many Manitoba businesses, exploring the resumption of its core operations when it’s safe to do so. While we wait with the rest of our community, we’ve reached out to health officials as we plan, ensuring we’re meeting and exceeding all COVID-19 protocols, not just for Bell MTS Place, but for all our venues," said Wozny.

Problem is, I'm not sure how much longer anyone can wait. Daly has said how the league and its teams play the season could change through the course of the campaign, so the Jets could potentially start in one direction, then finish in another.

NHL markets by province/states

Daily average of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the past week as of Tuesday morning:

1. Minnesota Wild: 117.1

2. Chicago Blackhawks: 97.6

3. Colorado Avalanche: 82.2

4. St. Louis Blues: 79.1

5. Detroit Red Wings: 72.1

1. Minnesota Wild: 117.1

2. Chicago Blackhawks: 97.6

3. Colorado Avalanche: 82.2

4. St. Louis Blues: 79.1

5. Detroit Red Wings: 72.1

6. Nashville Predators: 62.7

7. Columbus Blue Jackets: 61.6

8. Vegas Golden Knights: 51.6

9. New Jersey Devils: 40.0

10. Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers: 39.7

12. Dallas Stars: 37.1

13. Boston Bruins: 36.7

14. Arizona Coyotes: 32.4

15. Winnipeg Jets: 31.8

16. Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning: 28.0

18. Carolina Hurricanes: 27.5

19. Buffalo Sabres, New York Islanders, New York Rangers: 23.1

22. Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks: 22.2

25. Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames: 21.2

27. Washington Capitals: 19.8

28. Montreal Canadiens: 15.9

29. Vancouver Canucks: 13.0

30. Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators: 10.7

— source: New York Times Covid Map and Case Count

Of course, there's no guarantee officials in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec will sign off on home games either, with numbers rising in those markets as the second wave hits hard. Then there's the ever-present matter of the closed Canadian-U.S. border for non-essential travel, which is why an all-Canadian division is being discussed.

Which is why I imagine most of those involved in the league aren't sleeping very well these days.

It's even more bleak south of the border. The Jets may lead Canada in new cases per capita, but 14 (of 24) U.S. markets are in worse shape. The worst offender is Minnesota, with a staggering 117.1 new daily infections per 100,000 people over the past week. Right behind them are Central Division rivals in Chicago (97.6), Colorado (82.2) and St. Louis (79.1) — all of which should have the Jets champing at the bit to play as much of their season as possible in the Great White North to avoid these obvious hot spots.

However, the U.S. has been far more open to allowing pro sports to return, with several NFL and college football teams playing in front of fans. Empty-arena hockey games likely won't be a problem in most markets.

I asked Wozny if the Jets are planning for the possibility of spending the entire season as nomads, the way the Toronto Blue Jays were forced to in the recently completed MLB season and the way the Toronto Raptors may be forced to for the NBA season set to begin Dec. 22.

"Echoing the message of commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL regarding return to play, we’ll continue to explore all options, ensuring player and fan safety remains a top priority," said Wozny. "Any decision we make will be directed in close consultation with provincial and federal health authorities, with guidance from the NHL. We will continue to follow their lead as it relates to any potential timelines relating to planning."

Bottom line: home may be where the heart is, but due to circumstances beyond their control, it may not be where the hockey is for the Jets this coming season.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
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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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