Why the NHL should skip the COVID risk and cancel the season

Today brought a flood of news from throughout the sports world; possibly a coincidence in timing, but just as possibly an attempt to squeak already confirmed stories into the Friday afternoon sea of noise.

Outside of the NHL, we have the MLB’s Philadelphia Phillies who have at least eight different cases amongst them as they train in Clearwater, Florida. We have at least one member of the Toronto Blue Jays who is feeling symptoms. At least one player on the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers has tested positive in Nashville, and at least three of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ staff have either tested positive or quarantined.  A member of MLS’ Atlanta United tested positive yesterday, as did a member of the NWSL.

Now, back to our game, we’ve seen two big stories come out in the past several hours; with a particularly topical one just leaking out while I was shelling out this piece. Elliotte Friedman and Bob McKenzie tag-teamed to break this afternoon that multiple players and staff from the Tampa Bay Lightning have tested positive, and according to Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun (who doesn’t have the greatest of reputations for his opinions, but is still plugged), Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs has tested positive as well.

While I don’t particularly like the idea of a specific person being named by anyone besides themselves (privacy and all that), the reveal of both the Lightning as the mass-impacted team and Matthews as a specifically impacted player will no doubt send shockwaves through the hockey world, given that we’re talking about a Stanley Cup contender and a megastar player in a huge market.

Now, that shouldn’t be what sparks the discussion; that any team is having health issues is problem, and that any players are getting sick is a problem. The underlying issue isn’t who is getting sick, but that even under these planned out guidelines, at both the sporting level and at the societal level, these top athletes are finding a way to get infected.

That likely won’t stop either. The problem here is so much bigger than sport; it’s a societal one, where many have declared that trying to combat a pandemic is a political statement that they must defy, or where many who would like to try to protect themselves and others simply don’t have the resources or support to do so, in the interest of political and financial gain by people further up the ladder than them. Then you have people who selfishly think they can run around free because they’re less likely to die if they get sick than others, or people who are simply burned out from thinking about this pandemic and are going to try to ignore it away now that summer is here and they’re bored.

Cases across the United States are rising once again, particularly in areas that are allowing people to go protection-less in mutual indoor spaces. An example of this is Las Vegas, which is seeing a huge spike after opening up casinos, restaurants, gyms and the like in a fashion that resembles a hastened rush to normalcy. This comes just days after a report that the city would be picked as one of the NHL’s two hub cities. The second hub city, which will reportedly be announced alongside Vegas on Monday, is likely to be a Canadian one – Toronto, Edmonton, or Vancouver – based on the fact that the NHL is very insistent on the mandatory 14-day quarantine for people coming into Canada being lifted, which the federal government approved today.

Canada hasn’t seen the same spikes as the United States just yet, but if any of the same trends (rushed re-openings, anti-protection protesting, or pandemic fatigue) carry-over, the cities remain at risk. There is also the paradox of the most prepared city of the three from an infrastructural standpoint (Toronto) also being the most at risk, though improvement has been seen.

This all goes to say – I don’t know how much confidence one can have in any particular city, in either country, to continue to decline towards zero, and keep players safe. There is the “bubble” option; one where staff straight up cannot leave their exclusive zone, and no one else can enter, but holding a group in total isolation like that for what could be several months for the teams that go on runs seems both highly improbable and incredibly mentally taxing – and it still might not guarantee everyone’s health.

Yes, top athletes in their 20’s and 30’s are less likely to have a case of COVID-19 turn fatal for them, but not every staff member fits that description, with many being much more at risk. Not to mention, there are still a lot of questions about the long-term impact of this virus on the body. That’s especially true for the respiratory system, which is an important asset to every athlete.

There is undoubtedly a big demand for pro sports to return. They’re a focal part of so many of our lives, there are a lot of us who depend on them for income, or even just entertainment and morale. Those who would be in this rinks are probably feeling it just as much; maybe not the income part, but the itch to do the one thing they’ve practically programmed themselves to do is likely taking its toll at this point as well.

But as we can see, the risk still remains high, and even with precautions taken, we’re still going to have cases, and unless things go full bubble, they’re not going to stop at any point. Given that we’re already going through so many hoops to re-organize and reformat all of these leagues to finish the 2019/20 seasons, or start the next ones – how much of this is worth it right now? I don’t think the answer has changed enough from when these same leagues hit pause in March. At the end of the day, as much as we miss our games, they’re not as essential as our health, and perhaps its time to go back to the drawing board, call the paused seasons a wash, and work on fixing the pandemic’s impact on society before we take risks to create a distraction we want, but don’t need.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Faceoff Circle on Patreon!