May 28, 2020

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NHL should pull the plug

Talk of season's return callous, absurd

Opinion

Cancel the NHL season.

As much as it pains me to say, commissioner Gary Bettman and the board of governors need to do the right thing and officially pull the plug. Not next month. Not next week. Immediately. Delaying the inevitable just seems more tone deaf with each passing day.

If league braintrust have any doubts, might I suggest they take an eye-opening peek in their own backyard.

Did you see the scene in New York's Central Park Sunday, just a few kilometres away from NHL headquarters? Construction is underway on a makeshift field hospital, with dozens of white tents popping up to treat the expected influx of seriously and critically ill patients that overwhelmed hospitals won't be able to.

What a terrifying thought that is.

There have already been nearly 800 deaths in the city — and more than 1,000 in the state — which is the epicentre of the pandemic and has been described as a war zone. Morgues are filled beyond capacity. And this is still just the tip of the iceberg. The body count is going to rise sharply in the coming days and weeks. In the United States alone, where 24 of the NHL's 31 clubs are based, there are dire predictions of more than four million infections and as many as 200,000 total deaths by the time we eventually "flatten the curve."

Imagine thinking that you'll be able to open up Madison Square Garden, the world's most famous arena, for a hockey game anytime soon. Or any venue in North America, for that matter. They're more likely going to be needed as emergency medical centres in the coming months.

Crew set up an emergency field hospital equipped with a respiratory unit in New York's Central Park, across from the Mount Sinai Hospital. (Mary Altaffer / The Associated Press)

Crew set up an emergency field hospital equipped with a respiratory unit in New York's Central Park, across from the Mount Sinai Hospital. (Mary Altaffer / The Associated Press)

Meanwhile, hundreds of players remain in limbo, confined to their homes all over the world and struggling to find a way to stay in game shape despite not knowing if, and when, the games might actually resume.That would include four players, two with Colorado and two with Ottawa, who have tested positive for coronavirus.

Several athletes and agents I've spoken to over the past week have told me they want, and need, some closure as quickly as possible. It's time to give it to them.

Thousands of people employed by the various teams are also in limbo, unsure if postponed shifts are going to get made up at some point. In some cases, that means they aren't even able to tap into much-needed compensation packages various deep-pocketed owners have proposed that kick in only if the rest of the schedule is wiped out. I suspect the majority of these hard-working folks count on those cheques. They deserve better.

Hundreds of players remain in limbo, confined to their homes all over the world and struggling to find a way to stay in game shape despite not knowing if, and when, the games might actually resume.

And what about all the loyal fans who are sitting on unused tickets right now, unable to get refunds because the remaining three weeks of the regular-season, along with the playoffs, remain in a state of TBA. I suspect many of these people are hurting financially right now. And yet organizations continue to sit on their money, while also adding insult to injury by sending out 2020-21 ticket renewal notices. Yeah, good luck with that.

Various levels of governments, even big banks, have come up with plans to help citizens and customers out. It's time for the NHL to do the same, or risk —deservedly — losing these people forever. Newsflash: They're already surviving without you right now, so you might want to try to find a way to prevent them from forgetting about you entirely. They also deserve better.

The most optimistic suggest a midsummer return, likely to empty venues, is the best-case scenario. And even that is starting to seem remote. Truth is, nobody really knows just how long this might play out.

"While it's rapidly accelerating, the risk in the general population is probably increasing rather than decreasing, so until we see where the peak is going to be and how high that peak is going to be, it's very difficult to give a definitive timeline," Dr. Willem Meeuwisse, the NHL's chief medical officer, told reporters in a conference call late last week.

Most hockey leagues around the world, including the ECHL, USHL and CHL, have already made the decision to abruptly end their seasons without proceeding to playoffs or crowning a champion. A difficult choice, no doubt. But the right one.

Even the International Olympic Committee, which stands to lose more sporting money than anyone, finally saw the writing on the wall last week and announced the 2020 Summer Games would be pushed back a full year.

A countdown clock displays the remaining days until the new start date for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Tuesday. The Tokyo Olympics will open next year in the same time slot scheduled for this year's games. (Jae C. Hong / The Associated Press)

A countdown clock displays the remaining days until the new start date for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Tuesday. The Tokyo Olympics will open next year in the same time slot scheduled for this year's games. (Jae C. Hong / The Associated Press)

The NHL must follow suit. Forget this nonsense about potential hockey in July, August and September, when people will still be assessing the damage and picking up the pieces of their ever-changing lives. Shut it all down immediately and start thinking about what next year might look like, including all the challenges that losing the rest of this season is going to be bring.

It's not going to be pretty, with a massive loss of revenue that is going to cut deep on all fronts. The salary cap, which had been primed for a big increase, is certainly heading in the other direction. Crowds, once they are allowed to return, are likely going to be a lot smaller.

Forget this nonsense about potential hockey in July, August and September, when people will still be assessing the damage and picking up the pieces of their ever–changing lives.

However, I'd suggest you save your sympathy for those who are really going to need it, like all the small-business owners and laid-off workers unsure how they're going to keep feeding their families in these unprecedented times. By comparison, the billionaire sports owners and millionaire athletes should come out of this relatively unscathed.

Look, I'd love nothing more than to be sharing stories with you about the exciting final week of the regular-season, where the Winnipeg Jets were set to embark on a critical three-game road trip starting Tuesday night in Calgary and then continuing in Colorado and Arizona, which likely would have determined if they made the playoffs for a third straight spring. That would have been a lot of fun.

But reality is much different. And dragging this charade out any further, clinging to the increasingly false hope that the world is somehow going to magically return to a pre-COVID-19 state and we'll be able to drop the puck anytime soon, is not doing anyone any good.

We need to focus on what's really important right now, which is following public-health guidelines and doing everything possible to get through this global crisis together.

And so I say again, louder for those in the back: cancel the NHL season.

 

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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