EDMONTON — It was supposed to be about safety, a claim that was at times questioned. But eventually, Edmonton and Toronto won the nod as hub cities, as a circuitous route took the National Hockey League to all-Canadian destinations that make the most sense.
By the time the deadline arrived, there really was no decision to be made between southern Nevada or northern Alberta, between the Eastern Time Zone south of the 49th parallel, and the centre of the hockey world that lies north of it. COVID-19 made the decision, the NHL simply announced it.
Toronto and Edmonton are where the 2019-20 season is to be completed, with Edmonton hosting the conference finals and Stanley Cup final. The two cities share common ground as homes to historic NHL franchises, yet their choice as hubs is born from completely different sets of circumstances.
For Toronto, the need for games in the Eastern Time Zone pitted them against few American sites willing to host games. A hub setting at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds is the centre of the Toronto bid, and includes the 6,300-square-metre OVO Centre as a workout hub and the Coca-Cola Coliseum as the primary practice rink – both located within walking distance inside the bubble.
The expansive parking lot that is the CNE grounds will allow players to be serviced by any means imaginable, while the tennis centre and rooftop pool at the Hotel X will also enhance what could be a two-plus month stay for some teams. The downtown Royal York hotel will be another home for some of the teams.
Even though there was a time when it was believed the hubs would land in the Pacific Time Zone cities of Las Vegas and Vancouver, it never squared with the established norms of televised sports that teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins would be made to start games at 10 p.m. ET. Or even later, depending on whether earlier games went to overtime.
Once Vancouver pulled out and Vegas became untenable, a hub in Toronto only made sense. And the myth that had the Eastern Conference going West and the Western Conference going East turned out to be exactly that, as both the Maple Leafs and Oilers will be the centrepiece teams in their own cities, even though no fans will attend the games.
The NHL fell into Edmonton as Vancouver pulled out of the race and COVID-19 numbers in Las Vegas spiked to the top of the graph. The NHL spurned what was believed to be free accommodations at the 3,000-room MGM Park in Vegas for a set-up in Edmonton that requires three hotels for the qualifying round, but will have all players at the ritzy J.W. Marriott — connected to Rogers Place by an enclosed walkway — once four teams go home and the real playoffs begin.
Players and staff will have their own private, fenced-off walkways from the hotel to Rogers Place and its adjoining practice rink – both inside and outdoors in some cases. A four-rink complex will be available to the 12 teams for practices via bus ride, while two state-of-the-art workout facilities and multiple private outdoor patios will exist inside the bubble.
Teams will have access to local golf courses and many more outdoor activities in both Edmonton and Toronto, as maintaining the mental health throughout the two-month tournament became a key issue. As discussions went on, players figured out that living in an air-conditioned bubble in 40 C heat was not preferable, and the Vegas they would be visiting ruled out outdoor sports, lying around a pool, or enjoying all the things that make it the place we love to visit in the colder months.
The question will be asked, why did the health czars in Alberta and Ontario accept a scenario that British Columbia’s would not?
The breaking point in B.C. revolved around what would happen if a player tested positive for COVID-19. It is believed that B.C., led by the revered provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, would not bend on contact tracing protocol that would mean a lengthy quarantine for anyone deemed to have been in close contact with an infected player. The NHL, of course, is unable to conform to protocol that would see multiple players — or perhaps an entire team — quarantined for several days mid-tournament.
In Alberta, Henry’s counterpart — the equally respected Dr. Deena Hinshaw — was accepting of the NHL’s testing protocol that was deemed similar to what medical personnel undergo. Medical professionals across the world are exposed to the virus on a daily basis, but continue working after passing rigorous testing. Players would be treated similarly, allowed to continue playing as long as they pass the requisite testing for the virus.
In moving on from Las Vegas, it became impossible to defend going to Clark County — an area of Nevada with at least 473 deaths and 21,449 confirmed cases so far — instead of a prairie province with 8,519 cases and 161 deaths since the pandemic began. The Edmonton region, with a population of roughly 1.3 million people, has had just 19 deaths and 1,202 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Now Edmonton, and Toronto, will also be able to boast of being the sites of hockey’s strangest playoffs.
The COVID Cup has its sites. Let the games begin.