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The National Hockey League should not play in Canada during the pandemic

By Stefan Superina

Thousands of youth hockey players across Canada have given up playing the sport they love this year. In the Greater Toronto Hockey League – the largest amateur hockey league in the world and a venue where international stars develop – the last competitive game most players enjoyed was sometime last March, when the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly ended playoff runs and championship dreams. And as provinces in which Canadian National Hockey League teams play consider tougher lockdown restrictions in the face of record COVID-19 case counts and increases in hospitalizations, the faint hope of playing competitive amateur hockey this season may be all but extinguished.

Youth hockey organizations (and other amateur sports) across Canada have made enormous sacrifices to help stem the spread of this pernicious virus. In marked contrast, in what many have called the failure of provincial health authorities to protect public safety, our leadership has given their approval for the National Hockey League’s plan to commence a 56-game regular season. This plan includes the creation of an all-Canadian team division.

Leadership and optics must count for something. Canadians have largely banded together throughout this pandemic at the advice of government and public health leaders. The majority of Canadians are doing their part to stay home, wearing masks in public and maintaining physical distancing. Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to take a toll on our physical, mental, and emotional health.

Canadians are trying to protect each other by limiting their lives and their livelihoods while waiting for the protection of a vaccine to arrive. At this fraught time, when we are facing new lockdowns and a healthcare system that is bursting at the seams, allowing the National Hockey League to resume league play and travel in Canada is not warranted.

I am sure the league’s return to play policy has been vetted by a host of medical experts. Ironically, it is an affront to our public healthcare system that players would have access to more frequent testing and timely results management than residents and healthcare workers in long-term care homes. Moreover, I expect contact tracing processes put in place by the National Hockey League to identify high-risk exposures would represent a gold standard that public health units have not been equipped to support.

Understandably, the National Hockey League wants to convene a regular season. Not playing will likely plunge the league deeper into obscurity in the North American professional sports landscape. Besides, other leagues have gone ahead with their COVID-19 blueprints for conducting a season, so why should the National Hockey League be any different?

Professional sports leagues playing in the United States are operating with a complete lack of social conscience as to what is transpiring around them, plainly for the sake of monetary gain despite extensive suffering. On January 8th, the United States registered more than 4,000 deaths, the highest single-day death toll since the pandemic began. Over 365,000 Americans have perished from the virus. The country is unequivocally a disaster zone where selfish interests trump public safety.

We are grappling with a second wave of COVID-19 in Canada and the virus continues to have a crippling economic effect on small businesses and countless individuals. Everyone is struggling to do their part. Many of us want to lace up the skates and play competitive hockey. Instead, we are following the rules. We are listening to the health authorities but everyone feels the impact of not joining together on the ice and off.

Importantly, until recently we have been doing much better than our neighbours to the south in containing the virus by willingly making these sacrifices. Unfortunately, many provinces are now reporting single-day records for case counts as public health measures put in place have not had their intended effect. Ontario’s Premier is telling us that we’re in a “desperate situation”, that “everything is on the table”, and that the pandemic “is getting out of control”. Quebec is imposing the first province-wide curfew in the country. Despite this worsening situation, professional hockey teams feel compelled to play, and have been given permission to do so.

The National Hockey League took advantage of the Canadian public health environment last year when they resumed play in the Edmonton and Toronto bubbles. COVID-19 case counts were among the lowest since the pandemic began and in the absence of gate revenues, legions of loyal Canadian hockey fans represented the league’s best chance of revenue generation.

If the league and their players refuse to conform to a bubble setting this time around, they should not be allowed to play in Canada. The optics of allowing players and team personnel to travel between cities when Canadians are being warned against non-essential travel is contrary to the public health messaging we need at this time. 

If the National Hockey League wants to convene their season outside of well-controlled bubbles, they should do so in the United States where leadership is absent and principles are an illusion. Canadians are in this together and Canadian National Hockey League teams should support us.

Stefan Superina is an MHSc candidate at the University of Toronto and spent four seasons as a minor hockey coach in the Greater Toronto Hockey League. 

Image credit: “Hockey Net” by mark6mauno is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0.