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Speculation on the NHL’s return is heating up

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Are any of the theories rooted in reality?

St Louis Blues v Anaheim Ducks Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

We all miss hockey and other sports, especially now, when a break from reality would be much appreciated. Unfortunately, sports are firmly rooted in reality - the reality of business and now, the reality of a pandemic.

Business concerns appear to be winning out among the press and others who have an itchy trigger finger when it comes to the return of the NHL. I absolutely understand it. Not holding games loses money, and not holding playoff games loses even more money. Not having sports to write about (and not having businesses open to advertise) leads to the kind of layoffs that we’ve seen start to happen at The Hockey News and elsewhere. If the teams aren’t bringing in money, they can’t pay their employees, and employees of other businesses who work at or around the arenas on game day also lose out on income.

I don’t envy the board of governors one bit, but in some speculation you see how desperate everyone is. Now the current push is to have playoffs in June, possibly somewhere like Buffalo or North Dakota. The problems with this suggestion are deep and complicated.

The first step is the NHL determining camp schedules, whether or not they want to play a few regular season games as a warm-up, and then playoff seeding. The camps would probably be shortened, but that translates into a mid-May start to get the post-season in by June. The problem? We don’t have a crystal ball that actually works. Cities and states/provinces don’t know where they’ll be by mid-May in terms of the outbreak or recovery.

Issue number two is where to play. UND would be the most isolated place, but where are you going to sequester players, staff, medical doctors, hospitality workers, and so on? Buffalo is a major metropolitan area in a state that is currently the epicenter of the outbreak.

David Staples of the Edmonton Journal (reprinted here in the Calgary Herald) suggests that the NHL follow the lead of the National Rugby Lead and sequester all of the players together away from the rest of civilization. Where would this compound be located?

Once you do find somewhere to host it, how do you keep people from bringing the virus into the area and how do you justify using medical personnel and limited (as of right now) testing to ensure everyone is virus free when the rest of North America is trying to get a pandemic wound down?

Suggests Staples:

But for the NHL to resume practices and then games in May/June, you don’t need a vaccine, you need to quarantine players/officials/TV crew at a hotel(s) and arena complex.

They would be cut off from world [sic] — and so would the staff preparing and serving them food and cleaning their rooms. There could be no chance of contact with infected individuals. The staff would be like workers on a cruise ship stuck on that ship at sea. But at least they would be working in an industry where work has evaporated.

You would also need regular temperature checks and testing within quarantine at a large hotel. By mid-May, however, testing could well be widespread.

First off, you don’t know with any certainty if testing will have improved by mid-May. It should be better by now but it’s still being absurdly rationed in major metro areas, which has lead to the official under-reporting of infections. Second off, is it fair to ask employees of the NHL to spend a month or two locked in a hotel without being able to see their families?

Third off, on what planet is it appropriate to treat people like servants with pay for work that people are basically insinuating they should be thankful for? Unless the pay is hazard pay, they’ll have problems finding people willing to sacrifice themselves to sign up for that gig.

Finally, what do you do when you have that perfect plan worked out, and a delivery guy shows up, and that delivery guy has the virus? Now you have basically a cruise ship (since Staples likes that analogy) of hockey players, staff, and housekeeping where the virus can spread around. Do you send people from there out into the community to seek treatment, thereby risking spread and re-igniting an outbreak that could be dying down? Do you monopolize medical resources for your league and their employees that other citizens without means don’t have access to, potentially hindering relief efforts, but this time at the risk of a PR firestorm?

There’s not a timetable for this. I hate to tell the owners, who I understand have a bottom line to worry about, that hockey probably is done for the season. I hate to tell the players, who so obviously miss the sport and their jobs, that it’s probably done for the season.

As a fan, I really hate the thought of this being it.

As someone who works in a field that just completed a cycle of “this will be two weeks/this will only be a month/see you next year,” I can say that the folks in charge, and everyone else, are not at the mercy of a concrete timetable. They’re at the mercy of something unpredictable that needs to be handled with a great deal of caution.

Unfortunately for all of us, an abundance of caution means an absence of sports.