September 30, 2020

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No trouble in the bubble

NHL delivers astonishing at-home experience for sports-starved fans mired in pandemic misery

Opinion

EDMONTON — Like most hockey players-turned-hockey parents, I've had the pleasure of attending many out-of-town tournaments over the years.

Grand Forks. Kenora. Warroad. Altona. Crookston. Fargo. I'd be hard-pressed to tell you about any of the on-ice results — I seem to recall getting plenty of participation medals and ribbons — but I remember plenty about what happened away from the rink.

The car rides brimming with excitement and anticipation. Swimming with teammates. Mini-sticks in the hotel hallways. Big group tables in restaurants. Poolside chats with parents. Staying up way too late. Non-stop pizza and pop. Gut-busting laughs and inside jokes. These trips were always a highlight of every season, and I miss them dearly now that I, and my kids, have sadly all grown up.

I've been thinking a lot about those cherished experiences over the past couple weeks. Unlike most hockey writers, I've had the pleasure of attending the most surreal out-of-town tournament in history. And while my experience in the hub city of Edmonton has come to an end after 16 memorable days and nights, I will also be taking plenty of memories home with me.

While Mike McIntyre's experience in the hub city of Edmonton has come to an end after 16 memorable days and nights, he will also be taking plenty of memories home.

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

While Mike McIntyre's experience in the hub city of Edmonton has come to an end after 16 memorable days and nights, he will also be taking plenty of memories home.

Watching the best players on the planet do their thing without a single fan in the crowd was hockey in its purest, most primal (and profane) form.

Watching the best players on the planet do their thing without a single fan in the crowd was hockey in its purest, most primal (and profane) form. Hearing every F-bomb and trash-talking insult spewed inside Rogers Place. Finishing covering a Jets-Flames game, going to the media room to conduct Zoom interviews and returning to my perch above the rink to see Dallas and Vegas about to face-off one day, Minnesota and Vancouver the next.

Calgary Flames goalie Cam Talbot and goalie Connor Hellebuyck shake hands after the Jets were eliminated Thursday night.

JASON FRANSON / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Calgary Flames goalie Cam Talbot and goalie Connor Hellebuyck shake hands after the Jets were eliminated Thursday night.

I won't lie — that was all pretty cool.

The bubble life may now be over for the Winnipeg Jets, which paves the way for my exit as well, but it's really just getting going for the National Hockey League. The original field of 24 teams will be whittled down to 16 after the weekend, with play beginning in the traditional four-round Stanley Cup playoffs that will run through early October.

I don't need to wait until the Stanley Cup is awarded to declare a verdict. Without question, what the league has managed to pull off in Edmonton and Toronto is nothing short of incredible. And, I dare say, it's something we should all get used to seeing for the foreseeable future.

Don't count on seeing fans back in the stands anytime soon. As much as I'd love to be wrong about this, I just don't see any scenario where it happens until we have a widely distributed COVID-19 vaccine. Perhaps they'll find a way to start allowing smaller numbers back into venues, the way Korean baseball is now doing, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

"I think knowing how well the NHL has done putting on the return–to–play, I think it makes it a little easier knowing they’re going to have some really good measures in place for us to return safely." – Adam Lowry

And widespread travel by teams playing in all their home markets? Given what's been happening in Major League Baseball, that seems fraught with danger.

With the 2020-21 season set to begin in December, the NHL is going to have to make a decision on what that might look like. The smashing success of the return-to-play protocols that have produced two consecutive weeks free of positive virus tests with players securely inside the bubble environments, might just be the only short-term solution. And there's now a blueprint for success, something we all wondered about just a few short weeks ago.

Matt Dumba gave an incredible opening-day speech about racial injustice.

TRIBUNE MEDIA TNS

Matt Dumba gave an incredible opening-day speech about racial injustice.

The look. The feel. The setup. And, most importantly, the safety. All a smashing success. And don't just take my word for it.

"I think knowing how well the NHL has done putting on the return-to-play, I think it makes it a little easier knowing they’re going to have some really good measures in place for us to return safely, Whether that start date is in December or January is still a little bit up in the air, but at least there’s an area with kind of a given timeline that you can prepare for now," said Jets forward Adam Lowry.

It's been striking, really, to have a front-row seat to how this has all come together, a true made-for-TV event where seemingly every little detail has been thought through.

"Sports are like the reward of a functioning society." – Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle

Take Thursday night, for example. St. Louis and Vegas ran a bit late in their game, pushing the start of Winnipeg and Calgary back about 15 minutes. I witnessed a frantic race by arena workers to get the rink ready for the nightcap game, including replacing many of the board advertisements to reflect those in the Jets' and Flames' markets over the ones in place for the earlier St. Louis-Vegas game.

There was Winnipeg's pre-game intro video, since they were serving as the "home team," PA announcer Jay Richardson's pre-recorded, "Here come your Winnipeg Jets" welcome, and even a rousing rendition of O Canada by the Hoosli Ukrainian Male Chorus. Although it wasn't used in their 4-0 loss, the Jets regular goal horn was at the ready, along with their usual pre-game warmup music playlist.

This wasn't just a Winnipeg thing, but a personal touch added for all teams. And it was terrific.

While being inside the rink — and I suspect viewing the action at home — provides a much-needed fix for hockey fans, you don't have to go far to get constant reminders of the real-world troubles around us.

Here in Edmonton, the signs are everywhere. Like many centres, the city is dealing with an economic downturn that brings about its fair share of problems. Drug abuse is up and visible in the ICE District around Rogers Place, as is a homeless camp adjacent to the rink, where poverty and desperation is readily apparent.

A clerk at the Westin Hotel was pepper-sprayed earlier in the week by a woman believed to be high on crystal meth, an incident witnessed by several media colleagues. Others reported seeing a man with a machete running around, swinging it in the air. Rising COVID-19 numbers in the community, and a mandatory mask policy in indoor, public places that started last Saturday also provided constant, daily reminders that life is still far from normal, even though sports is now back in our lives.

And while the hundreds of NHL players, coaches and staff inside the hub cities were shielded from most of this, there was at least some acknowledgement of society's ills within the secure environment.

Front and centre was Matt Dumba's incredible opening-day speech about racial injustice, followed by taking a knee during the anthem. Several players follow suit, including Winnipeg-born and raised Vegas Golden Knight Ryan Reaves. And there is the voice given to the newly formed Hockey Diversity Alliance. And honouring front-line workers fighting COVID-19.

Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle, as thoughtful a pro athlete as there is, recently said "sports are like the reward of a functioning society." Well, the games we love are back, even if our world remains a work in progress. Hockey, as we've seen, can truly be a great escape, reminding us of the simple pleasures in life. But as we continue to enjoy watching on-ice action for the next two months, let's not lose sight of the bigger picture.

Because as much as we'd like to put ourselves in a protective bubble, hiding from reality is not a long-term solution. Not for the NHL. Not for any of us.

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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