Making the case for Vancouver to be a hub city in NHL’s return

VANCOUVER – Bidding for the right to host National Hockey League playoff games in a COVID-19 world is pretty straightforward.

All commissioner Gary Bettman really wants is a safe place to play that has enough five-star hockey rinks and hotel rooms to accommodate up to 12 teams at once, and an inviting host backed by supportive governments.

After staging the 2010 Olympics and 2015 Women’s World Cup, Vancouver is ready for another major event and appears to check all of the NHL’s boxes. But it’s impossible to know where the city and the Canucks rank on the league’s short list of 6-8 finalists who have applied to stage up to half of what is expected to be a 24-team tournament should the NHL emerge as planned this summer from the coronavirus shutdown.

British Columbia Premier John Horgan was so giddy at the prospect of NHL hockey returning that in a press conference last week he suggested the league should streamline things and simply bring the entire Stanley Cup playoffs to the province, where games – and perhaps votes for the governing party – could be spread across several regions.

“I believe we’re in a good place to host; that’s why I contacted the commissioner,” Horgan said. “The Canucks have been working very co-operatively with my minister. We’ve heard from others around the league that have other ideas about perhaps having all of the games played in British Columbia.

“I wanted to let the commissioner know that British Columbia stands ready to assist in looking at a plan brought forward by the players and the NHL, and if we can make it work I think it would be great for B.C. and it would be great for the NHL.”

He said the “sky’s really the limit.” He is up for re-election in 2021.

Politics aside, Vancouver is an appealing candidate to stage the NHL playoffs. There were just two new cases of COVID-19 reported by the province on Tuesday and, according to CBC Vancouver, British Columbia’s coronavirus mortality rate of 27.4 deaths per million people is the lowest of any jurisdiction in North America or Western Europe that contains at least five million residents.

Rogers Arena is downtown, walking distance to several luxury hotels, and both Burnaby Eight Rinks and the three sheets of ice at the University of B.C. are available as practice venues a short drive away. There are outstanding training facilities at UBC, and the world-class Fortius Sport and Health complex is next to the Burnaby rinks.

Vancouver also has a couple of secret weapons.

Well, one is a secret outside of B.C. – provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, whose calm, consistent and pragmatic messaging has made her as popular on the West Coast as Elias Pettersson.

On the possibility of the NHL returning, Dr. Henry said recently: “There are ways we can do it safely. I think it’s an interesting idea. There would be parametres we’ve talked about. I would not see there being an audience, for example, but we could broadcast the games. And there are always ways that players could take precautions to ensure there’s physical distancing.”

Vancouver’s other ace is, well, Vancouver.

As the NHL’s Return to Play Committee works towards finalizing a road map for hockey’s comeback, it’s important to remember that players are 50 per cent partners in the league’s multi-billion-dollar business. It is a big demand to ask players to commit to a playoff format that could see them playing “road games” away from their families for up to two months.

Spending a summer in Vancouver may be a little more pleasant than in other places. Do players really want to see if it’s a dry heat in Las Vegas in August?

The Canada-U.S. border, closed to non-essential traffic for another month, is not the hurdle it appears to be since visitors with work visas have been allowed to cross, although anyone coming into Canada is still required to self-quarantine for 14 days. That obstacle also applies to NHL bid cities Edmonton and Toronto.

“We certainly have a strong interest in hosting games in Vancouver if the NHL decides to move forward with the hub city scenario, provided the plan is in accordance with guidelines set by health authorities and the provincial government,” Canucks chief operating officer Trent Carroll told Sportsnet on Wednesday. “We see this as something that could be a positive initiative in a challenging time. Maybe it brings a bit of hope and a spark back to the community.”

As Carroll said two weeks ago: “We’re all searching for something that can make us feel better.”