The NHL will probably be the first of the big four American sports to play again and they will be the big experiment. Can you host as many people as you need to play major sports without getting people sick?
The NHL will have two hub cities when they resume playing with their expanded playoffs. One of them is reportedly a lock to be Las Vegas, Nev. The other, up until last night, was going to be Toronto, Ontario, Canada if they could get approval from the Canadian government. Because of the skittish nature of the Canadians in this environment, the NHL has started hunting for an alternative. According to a report published on the morning of June 17, the city gaining traction to replace Toronto is Chicago. I already covered why this would be a terrible idea, and you can find that article at this link.
Chicago resides in Cook County in northwest Illinois. It’s the county with the most COVID-19 cases in the United States. You can find more information about Illinois’ COVID-19 cases here. We can also add another reason for this. Illinois has seen the largest decline in the number of COVID-19 cases, so why screw that up for the NHL or any major sport?
Let’s talk about these other cities that are rumored to be hubs and discuss the overall validity of this whole venture. Ontario has its own reopening plan. Hamilton, Durham and Niagara have moved to stage two of the Ontario reopening plan. Toronto, Peel and Windsor-Essex are not moving to phase two because of the continued spread of COVID-19. Stage two of the Ontario reopening plan includes things like restaurants, outdoor sports, beaches and other recreation facilities. You can find that list here.
Toronto has no date to move into stage two, and Peel and Windsor-Essex will move to that stage this weekend. Ontario is still waiting for numbers to go down so that it can reopen safely. If Toronto is such a hard hit region that restaurants can’t reopen, can you really bring in the NHL?
In Las Vegas, some casinos and restaurants have been open since June 4, when Nevada moved to phase two of the reopening process. They are suffering the consequences as Nevada governor, Steve Sisolak, says there is no date for the state to move to phase three with an increase in cases since moving into stage two. With the governor and the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services shutting down any idea to move to phase three in the near future, it’s obvious Nevada is having trouble. This is a problem because larger venues and live entertainment facilities aren’t yet open. Certainly, crowds at the games stand no chance as of right now, and if the live event venues aren’t open, where will the TV crews go? Where will the players stay? Caesars Palace is open with limited capacity, and neither the Linq nor the Flamingo is open, even though the entertainment district is. MGM is slowly opening their casinos and perhaps by the time the NHL was to show its collective face, those could be open to house teams. Las Vegas has an awful lot of risk associated, especially when you consider what is happening there and what may happen when they step forward in reopen.
As if things couldn’t get more complicated, earlier this month, the Boston Bruins had to release a statement because one of its players tested positive for COVID-19 while being asymptomatic. This happened right after the NHL moved into phase two of its return to play, where it let teams have something of a small training camp. Now according to the release, it seems every other Bruin was quickly tested, and the tests came back negative. This brings together a good question. Let’s say Patrick Kane bumps into someone asymptomatic in the airport. Now, Kane could give both the Hawks and the Oilers COVID-19 without anyone having a clue. Would it even be worth doing if the worst happens? They play three games, a team gets COVID-19, and as a result, they can’t play and have to go back to the home cities in quarantine for two weeks. I say maybe not.
Something that could lead to hope for NHL fans is that, unlike the MLB, the league doesn’t appear to be running full speed towards a lockout over this. The NBA has players who don’t want to play and old coaches who are worried about the plan and GM’s telling them to go. The NHL and NHLPA have only agreed to a format in the postseason and phases one and two. No three, four, or a true return to the ice has been ratified by the NHLPA, and any possible disputes over health and safety haven’t even gone to the table yet.
A major factor will be how the NHL handles the bubble within the hub cities. Whether or not the families will be allowed in is one of the biggest questions among NHL players. One other sports league already has a bubble plan, and that’s the NBA. The NBA is expected to take three months to finish its eight-game regular season and playoffs. The players involved in that bubble cannot leave the premises of the Disney World complex once they enter. It does not seem that families are involved, and Disney employees cannot leave and see their families either. It seems the NHL may have some older players who choose not to play if families cannot go, and they cannot see them.
This is a dangerous venture for every major sport. Ali Khan, a former CDC director and dean of the University of Nebraska’s College of Public Health, had this to say about the NBA plan. The same could reasonably be applied to the NHL’s idea as well. “If done right the NBA can prevent players from being exposed.” In his interview with Yahoo, Khan continued, “However, if there’s a mistake made, they’re at risk of an explosive outbreak with lots of people being infected.” This is the large danger leagues face when trying to make a return to sport happen.