Flames preaching safety-first mentality as COVID-19 affects sports world

Calgary Flames' Milan Lucic, centre, celebrates his goal with teammates Dillon Dube, left, and Derek Forbort during second period NHL hockey action in Calgary, Sunday, March 8, 2020. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

CALGARY – In the midst of discussing his recent play, David Rittich stopped ever-so-briefly to remind a reporter of the new world we’re living in.

Standing behind a podium, positioned eight feet away from all media-types, the affable netminder noticed a reporter’s feet has crept past the new, do-not-cross line taped in front of the assembled chairs Tuesday.

“Please,” deadpanned Rittich, motioning towards the transgressor without skipping a beat.

“The line. Thank you.”

Geoff Ward entered minutes later with a reminder of the (imaginary) office walls WKRP in Cincinnati reporter Les Nessman has taped on the floor to mark out his cubicle.

The smile on Mark Giordano’s face as he entered the Ed Whalen media lounge to see the eight-foot sneeze guard in place, was a nod to just how different the NHL’s new media interview policy is with an eye on preventing the spread of Coronavirus.

Strange times, indeed.

“Are you behind the line there?” he joked to the same scribe, before being asked if he loved the new space he’s afforded between “us” and him.

“We like having you guys around for the most part, I think,” he added with a grin.

“We have to do what the league tells us to, and our organization thinks is best.

“Being safe and having these precautionary measures is a good thing for sure.”

Like workplaces the world over, COVID-19 dominated the conversation around the Saddledome Tuesday, as new measures were put in place to limit contact with fans and the media, as per all four major North American sports leagues.

With dressing rooms now closed to journalists for the foreseeable future, the daily media availability was moved to a much more formal press conference-type setting.

As media discovered upon arrival, the eight-foot free-throw line of sorts is just one of the many steps being taken to ensure all precautions are made to try keeping players and staffers safe from the virus.

The brief moments of levity it added revolved around how strange it all felt, and in no way suggested that taking this virus seriously isn’t prudent.

“I don’t think anybody wants to play to empty buildings by any stretch of the imagination,” said Ward.

“It’s always a lot more fun when the buildings are full, but we’ll see how it goes. Hopefully here we don’t have to go to that extreme, but for the health of everybody I think that’s more important than anything else. We’ll see what happens if and when we get to that point.

“Obviously the league has researched what the procedure they feel is to do, and the teams have been involved in that. We feel like between the team and the league, in terms of what they’ve done to set up and protect everyone from potential exposure, I think it’s a good first step, and then we’ll see what happens from here.”

Media entering the Dome Tuesday were immediately directed to a hand-sanitizing station at the players’ entrance – one of many that were set up around the arena this week.

Players have been reminded of the importance of proper hygiene and getting rest, with an eye on keeping their immune systems as strong as possible.

With over 118,000 Coronavirus cases worldwide, resulting in more than 4,200 deaths to date, everyone has a responsibility to take this seriously.

On Tuesday, the top hockey leagues in Germany and Austria cancelled the remainder of their respective seasons on the advice of government and health authorities. On the weekend, the women’s world championship in Nova Scotia was the latest international hockey tournament to be nixed by the IIHF. Much like Swiss hockey games, soccer games in Spain, Portugal and Germany are slated to be played in empty stadiums, as the list of Coronavirus casualties grows.

Tennis officials cancelled the Indian Wells tournament over similar concerns.

Santa Clara Country health officials announced Monday they’ve banned all events that would attract crowds of over 1,000 for the next three weeks, which would likely include San Jose Sharks games.

“It’s kind of more (prevalent in Europe) than here, obviously,” said Rittich, who has been monitoring the situation in his native Czech Republic.

“I just read article today, they closed, well didn’t close fully, but the hockey game. They can get just 100 people at the rink, which included players, trainers and everyone. It’s kind of a bigger deal there than here because you know about Italy. Schools in Czech had a break and everyone went to Italy, which wasn’t very smart, but it is what it is.”

Italy was placed in a government-mandated lockdown Monday, as more than 10,000 people have contracted the virus, resulting on over 600 deaths.

With 14 cases identified in Alberta to date, the province is still considered a low-risk area. But the goal is obviously to keep it that way by erring on the side of caution.

With elderly people being most at risk of dying from the virus, COVID-19 is clearly an international health concern, which is why the NHL has been closely monitoring its spread on an hourly basis.

Commissioner Gary Bettman wisely refuses to deal publicly with hypotheticals, but is unquestionably playing out endless scenarios with league and world-wide advisors in case more extreme measures are called for.

“It’s important to err on the side of caution and just take as many measures as you can to eliminate whatever is going on,” said Travis Hamonic, who is, incidentally, on the verge of returning to the lineup following an upper body injury.

“I think we have a lot of faith in the Alberta health system, as well as the people the Flames have employed to look after us, and as far as the NHL and the group they have to be monitoring the situation that’s unfolding in the world, and in our country and province.”

At a time when fear and ignorance is a clear enemy, he’s right in putting his faith in experts directing the league’s conduct from above.

Never mind the fact hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake for the hockey business, this is a worldwide health concern already eroding billions from stock markets worldwide.

“It’s concerning when something like this is going on,” said Giordano.

“It’s something that has come quick in the world, and in the news, and we’re all aware of what’s going on, so we want to be safe with this. Obviously it’s dangerous. We are still low-risk in Alberta, but our organization is doing a really good job, and all of those things take care of us.”

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