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Winnipeg Free Press



River City could be Hockey Island

As NHL seeks safe harbours for a potential restart of season, Winnipeg should be at top of list


So here's a thought: If the NHL is going to stubbornly insist — the COVID-19 pandemic be damned — it's going to find a way to finish out the season, I'd suggest the ideal solution is waiting right here in good ol' River City.

Saskatoon, Grand Forks and Manchester, N.H. have all been mentioned as potential locations to safely drop the puck. Why not Winnipeg?

There's no doubt desperate times call for desperate measures. How else to explain the league clinging to the belief that somehow, someway the show might eventually go on and hockey can return. Not everyone is convinced, including Los Angeles Kings defenceman Drew Doughty who told reporters Monday "I don't see how this season is going to return. I really don't." He's the first big star to make such a public declaration. I suspect others will soon follow.

I'm on record as saying Gary Bettman and company should pull the plug already and quit dragging this out, but they are clearly loath to do that here in mid-April even though we should already be well into the first round of the playoffs at this point. If a return-to-play does happen — and I wouldn't advise anyone putting any money down on this possibility — it's going to require both sensitivity and creativity.

Forget about playing in packed rinks. That simply won't be happening anytime soon, perhaps not until there's a vaccine developed that can prevent another deadly flare-up once medical officials give the all-clear. Nor would returning to action in all 31 markets, including some hard-hit ones, such as New York, which is at the epicentre of the global health crisis.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly raised some eyebrows last week when he suggested the league is considering games in less densely populated cities that have done an admirable job of flattening the coronavirus curve to date. Similar to a proposal by the MLB to set up shop in Arizona, the NBA in Las Vegas and Dana White and the UFC on some kind of "Fight Island," the NHL would essentially create its own isolated community, complete with medical screening. A sporting biodome, if you will.

Such a move would allow for teams to safely gather en masse to finish out the year in mostly empty arenas. The Stanley Cup would be awarded. Broadcast partners, which are seeing their ratings plummet and are absolutely starving for fresh content right now, would have something to sink their teeth into. A captive audience of bored fans would have something to cheer for. As well, a projected $1-billion revenue shortfall, which is going to have a devastating trickle-down effect in the league, could at least be mitigated.

Kyle Connor and the rest of the Winnipeg Jets could be waiting until July to play again, if the current season restarts at all. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press files)</p>

Kyle Connor and the rest of the Winnipeg Jets could be waiting until July to play again, if the current season restarts at all. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press files)

"We do have people putting together the comprehensive laundry list of what we would need from facilities and evaluating some facilities on some level," Daly told ESPN. "But I can’t tell you we’ve even finished creating a list (of potential sites), much less narrowed it down."

If Winnipeg isn't already on his list, it should be. And right at the top, too, with a big gold star right next to it.

I'll leave the specific details to the health experts, but statistics show we're doing an admirable job of fighting COVID-19 compared to many of our North American neighbours. The number of new cases is slowing and the number of active cases (which subtracts recoveries) has actually gone down from a week ago. That's an encouraging sign. It's clear local efforts are having an impact.

In that sense, we'd be as safe a bet as any city right now provided this trend continues over the coming weeks. At his daily briefing on Monday, Manitoba's Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, provided another glimmer of hope when he said he doesn't expect the current degree of social distancing measures to last until the summer, provided we double our efforts now.

From a pure hockey perspective, Winnipeg has multiple big-league venues and NHL-ready infrastructure such as Bell MTS Place, Bell MTS Iceplex and all the available hotel space you'd need to pull off an operation of this size. We put the other mentioned locations to shame in that regard.

And from the city's point of view, it would be a big boost to the local economy at a much-needed time. The league, by the way, didn't return my request Monday for comment on this proposal. Not that I'd expect them to say much, if anything, at this point.

None of this would happen right away. The best-case scenario right now seems to be dropping the puck again in July — once players are given a mini-training camp of two or three weeks — and playing through the summer. The NHL insists on having a full 2020-21 season but could start that as late as November if necessary, with extras such as the All Star game potentially scrubbed.

And, Bettman re-iterated on Monday in an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper, that could include playing games in selected cities.

"We're exploring all options, but when we'll have an opportunity to return depends on things we have absolutely no control over... We don't know when we can come back, but it's something we're monitoring on a daily basis," Bettman said.

The NHL insists on having a full 2020-21 season, but could start that as late as November if necessary. (David Zalubowski / The Associated Press files)</p>

The NHL insists on having a full 2020-21 season, but could start that as late as November if necessary. (David Zalubowski / The Associated Press files)

I expect this will all start to come into focus by early May. At that point, the NHL will be a lot closer to a "fish or cut bait" scenario. They will be almost two months into their pause, and some clarity is going to be required by then. This perpetual state of wait-and-see can't continue forever.

Winnipeg has a rich history of stepping up. The city was waiting with open arms back in 2011 when the NHL needed to find a permanent fix for the free-falling Atlanta Thrashers, and look how well that turned out.

And now, nearly a decade later, perhaps we could play a vital role in getting the entire sport back on its feet.


Twitter: @mikemcintyrewp

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre

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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Updated on Monday, April 13, 2020 at 9:34 PM CDT: Fixes typo.

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