It was billed as an exclusive interview — at least it was as long as you paid $5 billion for the NHL’s television rights — but as Gary Bettman revealed the NHL’s sort-of plan for resuming play this summer, you had to look past a number of things.
There was, for example, the howler that money wasn’t the prime motivation for the league’s return to play but, rather, a reflection of the overwhelming desire of the game’s fans.
There was also the deceit that the new, one-time-only playoff format preserves the integrity of the Stanley Cup.
At no extra cost, Bettman also stated the new plan was the result of the league’s warm relationship with the NHL Players’ Association, a union Bettman has locked out three times during his stay in office.
OK, on some level the grandstanding was mostly predictable and could be tolerated. I mean, Bettman was never going to come out and say the whole idea is a money grab and, given everything at stake, the PA had to go along with it.
But, for this city and this province, there was one big reveal from Tuesday’s announcement that couldn’t be spun — which left you uneasy or enraged, or a combination of both.
Vancouver is one of five Western Conference locales being considered as a hub city for this playoff thingy, and given everything we’ve all been through to battle the novel coronavirus outbreak, that’s disturbing.
On a day when COVID-19 deaths in the United States passed the 100,000 mark, Bettman offered up the framework for the NHL’s return-to-play plan. By now, most of the details have been circulated in the public arena, and while there were a few surprises — love to get into the formula for draft-lottery seeding but I get a nosebleed every time I try — most of the hockey-related pronouncements were as anticipated.
On some level, the identification of potential host cities was also unsurprising. We knew Vancouver is in the running. We knew Edmonton is on the list. We can also tell it would register as a major upset if either Canadian city supplanted Las Vegas as the hub for the Western Conference. Consider all players would have to self-isolate for another 14 days when arriving in Canada.
But this is about something else.
Since the pandemic first crashed into our lives, British Columbians have demonstrated an enormous public spirit in fighting the novel coronavirus. Lives have been turned upside down. Jobs have been lost. But we’ve stayed the course.
It hasn’t always been Woodstock, but the steadily decreasing numbers in our province tell a story. On Monday, Dr. Bonnie Henry reported there were no new outbreaks while pronouncing there has been “significant progress.”
“We are moving forward,” B.C.’s good doctor said. “Our success so far and our ability to ease restrictions relies on our shared commitment and effort and we need that to continue.”
It is precisely that shared commitment and effort that makes Vancouver desirable to the NHL, and Bettman said as much on Tuesday.
“We want to be in a place that doesn’t have a lot of COVID-19,” he said.
Great, but does Vancouver want you?
We’ll concede the NHL will employ all the relevant safety protocols in their relaunch and will do their best to mitigate risk. But the one thing we’ve come to know about the virus is it’s completely unpredictable. The strictest precautions can be taken and best practices applied but that doesn’t guarantee a thing.
Sorry, this isn’t the time to play fast and loose with COVID-19, especially considering all the hard work we’ve already put in as a province.
Seventeen per cent of NHL players, after all, are currently in Europe. Sweden hasn’t been practising social distancing since this thing started. Russia is currently one of the global hot spots.
Then there’s the U.S. to consider. We trust we don’t have to explain our neighbour’s deplorable record in fighting this pandemic, but we’re going to invite players from all these jurisdictions to our city for a hockey tournament that could last three months?
That would be some 300 players, a similar number in staff and who knows how many others to stage the games. The number gets over 1,000 pretty quickly.
The optics are terrible and the look for Premier John Horgan isn’t much better. He’s stressed the need for responsible behaviour. He’s told us were all in this together. Then along comes the NHL and, suddenly, British Columbia is open for business.
Bettman, it should be noted, thrives when he can play one party against other — see Sportsnet’s aforementioned TV contract. You just hope Horgan isn’t making promises he’ll have to keep.
Again, this is likely a moot point because it’s difficult to see Vancouver being selected over Las Vegas. But the mere fact we’re still having this discussion is troubling. Yes, we want this lockdown to be over and, yes, we want signs that things are returning to normal.
But just before Bettman took to the airwaves on Tuesday, a talking head on American TV said: “Just because you’re tired of something doesn’t mean it’s over.”
Let this be over and then we can talk to the NHL. Until then it’s a sign of disrespect for all those who’ve sacrificed for the greater good in this province.
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