Close. So tantalizingly close. If you’re a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays, Sunday must have seemed agonizing: the sun, the heat, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hitting bombs just down the road in Buffalo … and the federal government and the NHL announcing a border exemption to allow teams to cross into Canada for home playoff dates.
This will of course have no impact immediately in Ontario. Or Alberta. Or Manitoba or B.C. because, well, you know. Carey Price still has it, eh? But the reaction to the government’s decision seems to have resonated coast to coast and across all sports and reflects the very same public sentiment we’ve seen in all walks of life and business as our elected leaders and public health officials figure out how they’re going to get us to climb out of our root cellars and seize normality:
That sentiment is “What about me?”
It's sad but true that one constant throughout this pandemic has been the hugely flawed idea that there has been some kind of shared misery. Not everybody works at home on a laptop. Not everybody can shop for groceries at low peak times or order in. The ultra-wealthy have become wealthier. The pandemic has crushed marginalized communities more than others.
Yet governments and public health officials have tried to keep a lid on things by foisting the notion that we’re all in this together. I need a haircut. You need a haircut. At this point? We all do. The swells can’t golf, all they can do is forlornly polish their Audis and dream of a day where life isn’t so tough. See? We’re all in this together!
It’s been a load of bollocks from the get-go. Everybody knew this in the early days of the pandemic. We knew it two months later. And a year after that. Thing is, with so many folks with less to do there’s been a lot of time to look around and think about stuff going on and realize that buddy over there seems to be making out a little better. Hmm.
So if we were jealous of each other in lockdown, how on earth did we think we’d react when stuff re-opened? Seriously: as a society, it took us far too long to take care of the elderly and dying and we never really did figure out schools. Basically, we sucked hugely at stuff that was important – taking care of the weakest and smallest.
And now you’re surprised re-opening has hiccups?
Against this backdrop, wouldn’t you know that the feds would go ahead and give the NHL an exemption to allow players to cross the border? Cue the claims that it’s a sign of hockey’s hold on the country. Cue the complaints from other leagues and sports associations and fans that it’s unfair. I’m waiting, frankly, for advertisements that this only happened because the Prime Minister’s riding is in Montreal and he’s angling for votes.
This isn’t to make light the plight of others. By and large, sports – professional and amateur - have approached the pandemic with a surprising amount of intellectual and emotional dexterity. They’ve bubbled players and whole leagues, fining those who don't follow protocol, doing charitable deeds, basically staying the hell out of the way.
With the odd exception, the whole narrative of playing a role in the re-opening of society or offering entertainment to ease the drudgery of the pandemic was gently handled. Fire wasn’t returned to each social media critic. Cries of super-spreader were mostly allowed to dissipate. Indeed, you can make the case that, world-wide, professional sports did a much better job than society as a whole of managing outbreaks and limiting infection.
There was a kind of … I don’t know … respectfulness? Awareness?
Of course, when we’re talking about leagues and teams we’re talking smaller numbers and much more money and a better support system than the ones available to schmucks like us. It’s not the same as ensuring health for a country of 38 million.
And there have been outliers: FIFA and UEFA, for example, with their ludicrous idea of playing meaningless international ‘friendlies’ in the middle of the worst of things. Or the IOC bullying its way to Japan despite the fact nobody in the country wants them there right now. God bless them. It’s nice to see that even in these times somebody is committed to consistency.
I’m just not sure letting the Colorado Avalanche or Las Vegas Golden Knights into Canada and asking them to adhere to more intensive protocols will damage public health or the rate of COVID-19 infections in this country. And that’s kind of where I’m at with this, you know? All I want to know about this decision is will it be bad, good or benign to the common good. Will it contribute to another wave? And if the answer is 'good' or 'benign'? Have at it.
I have to imagine a lot of entities – the CFL, MLS and Major League Baseball specifically – have taken note of the NHL’s exemption and are no doubt fashioning appropriate pitches, lining up political allies and working up to the question.
Let’s bring this back to the Blue Jays, because they are front of mind. If the border’s open to NHL teams, then it ought to be open for other teams, right?
First, let’s be clear about what we’re talking about here: possibly allowing one (1) NHL team to cross the border once for two games - maybe twice. Depending on how the series unfolds, it could very well be a one-time thing.
In comparison, if we make the potentially optimistic assumption that the earliest the Blue Jays would be allowed to play games at the Rogers Centre is mid-August, that would still see seven different teams entering the country at seven different times. If we limit it to September, it’s five different teams with the Blue Jays entering and leaving four times. Playoffs? Let’s leave that aside for now: I see the Blue Jays bullpen warming up...
The easiest thing would be to simply open the border to the fully-vaccinated, right? Then all the players and all the teams could come in.
Except as far as we know, no MLB team is fully vaccinated. I wonder about the NHL – it'd be a good question to ask - but vaccine hesitancy is a thing among athletes just as it’s as thing in society as a whole. The Blue Jays expect to be at an 85 per cent vaccine level this week, and they’ve been in areas where vaccines have been widely available since February.
As many as 10 MLB teams are believed to be short of that threshold despite the fact that they’ve been incentivized by drastically relaxed restrictions. So you can see where this goes, right? Would you be comfortable admitting pro athletes who are not vaccinated? What if we’re talking 20 per cent of a team that’s unvaccinated?
Or let’s look at it another way: if you were a player on one of the Blue Jays' opponents, and had been granted loosened restrictions after reaching the 85 per cent threshold, would you be thrilled to be told you’d be confined to a hotel to play a series in Toronto just to give the Blue Jays home-field advantage? Never mind whether some Blue Jays players might prefer the freedom of Buffalo, too.
So, yes, there’s a difference between what the NHL has asked and what other leagues may want. The NHL pulled off the whole Scotia North Division thing this season with some messy COVID-19 outbreaks. As the Vancouver Canucks would attest, it wasn’t much fun and probably wasn’t all that fair at times but the NHL has enough open channels at the provincial and federal levels to know when and how to make their approach.
Smart people will adopt the approach of Mark Shapiro. The Blue Jays president and CEO knows it could take three weeks or so to fully move the big-league operation from Buffalo to Toronto and has acknowledged that public health will determine when the time is right for the Blue Jays to ask the big question and get the answer we all want. You know: that answer to that question. We all want the same answer as we begin to emerge in different ways and in different stages and with different realities than buddy down the street? We’re certain about that, right?