Breakdown in talks leaves Vancouver out of running as NHL hub city

rogers-arena

In this Sept. 16, 2012, file photo, a cyclist rides past Rogers Arena, the home of the Vancouver Canucks NHL hockey team, in Vancouver, British Columbia. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press via AP)

VANCOUVER – B.C. chief medical officer Dr. Bonnie Henry likes hockey, but she loves her people.

The province’s top doctor, who has overseen one of the most effective coronavirus containment plans in the world, confirmed Thursday what Sportsnet first reported: that health officials in B.C. and the National Hockey League could not agree on contingency plans should a player test positive for COVID-19 during a proposed playoff tournament in Vancouver.

And so the NHL is exploring other hub-city candidates like Edmonton and Toronto.

“What we provided was our advice and, basically, the fact that we would take the health of the players and the health of our province as the primary concern in terms of having the NHL play in Vancouver,” Dr. Henry said during her daily press briefing in Victoria. “I actually think that is a positive for us and that it should have been something that the NHL saw as a positive partnership.

“We are doing very well. We have a good balance. But under no circumstances was I going to compromise in any way the health of people here in British Columbia, and we made that very clear.”

The Vancouver Canucks thanked B.C. health officials for their support during the bid to host the NHL’s summer return-to-play in a statement.

Popular with players and one of the safest major cities in North America during the global pandemic, Vancouver was seen as a hub favourite to stage half of the 24-team Stanley Cup tournament that the NHL hopes to operate this summer.

But after the Canadian government invited the NHL to return by amending this country’s mandatory quarantine guidelines for travellers arriving from abroad, talks involving the league, the Canucks and the B.C. government couldn’t solve the issue of what would happen should a player, coach or team official test positive for the coronavirus.

B.C. has strict isolation and contact-tracing guidelines for such an event

“Our advice and our direction was that if there was a positive case that arose, that we would do what we do with all cases that we have here – that we would investigate and there needed to be a contingency in case there were other people that were identified as ill,” Dr. Henry explained. “It might mean suspension of part of a series for a period of time until that could be done.

“I think we need to recognize that even though most young, healthy people do very well with this virus, some people do get very ill, and we’ve seen that in some of the athletes who have tested positive and who have had an illness in the last few months. It can be a very serious illness for some people who may not even recognize that they have underlying conditions that make them more at risk, or for some of the people in the team who may be older as well.”

Provincial health minister Adrian Dix was direct in his response to questions about the NHL deciding to explore other hub cities.

“Obviously, it’s up to the NHL to make its own decisions and to decide what’s important for the NHL and what isn’t from a commercial and health basis,” he said. “But the evidence is that the focus on public health issues here in British Columbia, led by Dr. Henry, has been exceptional. And I think that’s an argument (for the NHL) to come, and I think they probably received that as an argument to come. But presumably, they have many commercial and other reasons that they consider in addition to that.”

He later added: “If I was involved in the NHLPA or I was involved in the NHL, I would see Vancouver as an exceptionally attractive place to come, not because we would bend on health issues, but because we have a strong public health focus here.”

There were 19 new cases of the virus in B.C. on Wednesday. Only 15 people in the province of 5.1 million people are currently hospitalized due to COVID-19.

The NHL targeted July 10 for the start of training camps, with the opening games in the best-of-five preliminary round beginning about three weeks later.

“If it is true that Vancouver is off the table, then I am disappointed because I am a big hockey fan,” Dr. Henry said. “But I will be happy to watch it wherever it is.”

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