Treliving: Testing key to NHL’s return, but front-line workers come first

Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving. (Larry MacDougal/CP)

It’s been more than a decade since the Calgary Flames were involved in a queue-jumping controversy involving its players getting the H1N1 flu vaccine.

The optics of Flames players receiving their shots privately, despite long lines and a shortage of the vaccine, prompted a provincial inquiry and plenty of criticism.

Brad Treliving wasn’t part of the organization back then, but the GM is well aware of the heightened sensitivity involved in his sport attempting to return while the COVID-19 pandemic looms.

One day after Albert Premier Jason Kenney announced his three-stage plan to slowly re-open the province, Treliving wanted to make it abundantly clear his team and the sport aren’t looking for favouritism or loopholes to get back to business.

“I always want to be the aggressive one, but you’ve got to pump the brakes — they’re going to let us know [when it’s safe to come back],” Treliving said Friday. “The key to all this stuff is going to be testing.

“I think we have to be very careful. There are people who need testing that are way more important than we are. Let’s make sure the people on the front lines get that. We’re never going to be in a position where we circumvent or get ahead of the line. I wasn’t here for the flu shot situation, but I’ve heard plenty of it. We certainly don’t want a repeat of that.”

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While there was plenty of optimism surrounding the Premier’s plan — and the prospect of trying to get life back to a new normal over the next handful of months — Kenney also reiterated that Alberta will not budge on its ban on gatherings of over 15 people until at least the end of August.

That’s problematic for a league with stated hopes of having teams starting to gather as early as later this month to prepare for the balance of the season and playoffs.

“I don’t see a position where we’re not allowed to gather in groups of 15, and we just sort of say, ‘Screw it we’re going to put 30 together,’” said Treliving. “That’s not going to happen.

“We’re going to follow the procedures, so to do what we want to do we’re going to have to come up with scenarios to accomplish getting ready and that may require us to be in smaller groups. We have plans on how we’d run a camp, not just 30 guys, but three groups of 10 or four groups of eight. Even if you’re talking about opening up the [Saddledome] for skating, there may be limitations on how that can happen.

“We have plans A, B, C, D, E, F and G.”

Kenney’s plans for opening arenas for the public is slated for the third and final stage, which does not have a set date attached given the fluidity of the pandemic. That stage would also include allowing sporting events with various restrictions. There’s currently no chance an NHL return this summer would include having fans in attendance.

“We saw in our province some re-openings, but we know where we all fit in the landscape,” said Treliving, always good at putting the business of entertainment in the proper perspective.

“My initial reaction was, ‘It’s good news.’ I think we all try to take whatever positive news we can as moving forward. The message is loud and clear, it’s a gradual approach, we’re not out of the woods, and we all have to be cautious about how we operate. If we do get back to playing it certainly looks like it will be summer.”

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At a time when we’ve been quarantined with our families for almost two months, it’s still very hard to imagine how far away we are from getting to a point where players are allowed to crash into one another at high rates of speed, face-wash one another after whistles and sit inches away from one another on the bench.

“NHL games don’t really scream social distancing do they?” chuckled Treliving.

“In this new normal, it seems really odd we’re going to get to a point where hockey games are going on and players are colliding, but we’ll get there. Whenever we’re allowed to do that, we’ll get there.

“I come back to, at some point in time, testing will play a big role in this. We wouldn’t gather guys until we have procedures in place, until you can test them and make sure everyone is healthy.”

There is still plenty of talk that if, or when, the NHL feels it’s safe to do so, the season would be played out in a handful of hub cities like Edmonton — where the state of the art rink and practice facilities, as well as the nearby hotels and amenities, make it a natural choice.

Kenney was open to that possibility Thursday.

“I can conceive of a way they could put together a plan that follows our health guidelines with appropriate protective equipment and with nobody in the stands,” said Kenney. “But we have not yet received that.”

We’re nowhere near that point.

“It changes hourly and daily,” said Treliving.

“What I’m sensing in the last 24 hours is it’s almost like Christmas Day is coming — we’ve been cooped up so long that when we start hearing about openings we have to pump the brakes a bit.

“We’re not at the finish line yet. We’ve all got to be smart and let the smart people tell us what to do here.

“In the meantime, we will have a plan in place that we will operate under that satisfies and follows all the guidelines.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

NOTES: The Flames signed seventh-round draft pick Dustin Wolf to a three-year, entry-level contract Friday after the 19-year-old Everett Silvertips star finished as the Western Hockey League’s nominee as the CHL’s top goaltender.

“Definitely another great milestone,” said the undersized Wolf, who was the feel-good story of last year’s draft when he burst into tears at being the third-last pick.

“Just another step in the right direction. Definitely wouldn’t say it’s as emotional as the draft — crazy day, that was. I’m not the most emotional guy, but that hit me like a ton of bricks.”

Wolf’s nation-leading numbers are often overshadowed by his size, as the 6-foot, 165-pound prospect would otherwise have been a huge draft commodity.

“If he’s six-foot-two I think he’s a top-two rounds pick,” said Treliving.

“We got to the seventh round and we felt his athleticism and competitiveness were elite. We’ll see. The kid’s either going to make it, or die trying, and those are the kind of guys you want.”

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