Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the NHL Restart

Gary Bettman’s plan for the NHL restart is a mess.
Gary Bettman’s plan for the NHL restart is a mess.
Photo: AP (AP)

Major League Baseball’s plan to play a 60-game 2020 season is asking for trouble, as teams are going to be asked to fly from city to city, and coronavirus hotspot to coronavirus hotspot, multiple times a week for a two-month period.

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The NBA’s setup in Orlando is being described as “ass,” yet it’s a far sight better than what the WNBA has going with a vermin-riddled bubble two hours southwest in Bradenton. Major League Soccer’s hellscape has included two teams bowing out due to COVID-19.

College football may not happen this year. The New York City marathon in November has been called off. Even ultimate frisbee is getting canceled.

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And then there’s the NHL. There is plenty of reason to believe that hockey’s two-city plan will be a complete disaster, that there are enough people in the game with — ahem — certain views that might lead them to underestimate the seriousness of the situation and mess the whole thing up, and that the league’s leadership isn’t exactly up to the task.

But the plan to play a Stanley Cup tournament starting on August 1 and into October does have one important thing going for it: Canada.

That’s not to say things are perfect north of the border. Toronto has 632 active cases of COVID-19, while Edmonton has 173 people currently infected. But when you hear the phrase “hospital closing due to coronavirus” in Canada, it’s because Edmonton shut down a hospital to isolate an outbreak there, not because the hospitals are so full they can’t treat anyone, as is happening in Houston.

Over the last seven days, Canada has averaged 291 daily confirmed cases of coronavirus, or 7.74 per million people in the country. In the United Kingdom, where the English Premier League is back playing behind closed doors, the seven-day average is 551, or 8.27 per million people. By comparison, the seven-day average in Orange County, Florida, is 581 cases, or a staggering 417 per million. The area where the NBA set up its “bubble” has a higher level of new daily cases than the UK despite having a population 48 times smaller.

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Going to a place with a lighter caseload than a place where they’re already doing sports — and doing it with intercity travel — gives the NHL a real chance to make this thing work, as does the fact that Canada is serious about enforcing quarantine for people entering the country, with fines up to $750,000 and jail time for those who are derelict. And, yes, that’s going to apply to visiting athletes (weird that reporting on a matter of settled federal law required multiple unidentified sources, but whatever), too.

Could there still be an outbreak among NHL players and staff that either derails the whole thing or turns it into an unabashed farce? Absolutely. Is resuming the season instead of packing it in until October and trying to play a more normal 2020-21 season a plan that’s primarily about TV money for the league? You bet. When it comes right down to it, does this represent an unnecessary risk for an inessential activity? A million times yes.

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But of all the professional sports leagues in North America, the NHL is best suited to be able to return to play because of the ability to do exactly what it is doing, which is to say, getting the hell out of the United States. Washington Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle was right when he said, “Sports are like the reward of a functioning society.” And even with some of America’s troubles seeping over the border, Canada still is a functioning society. They’ve gotten the virus under control enough so that playing hockey there this summer might not be as stupid an idea as “playing hockey in the summer” would have seemed before the pandemic. Right now, that’s the best anyone can ask for.

Sorry to all the other Jesse Spectors for ruining your Google results.

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