Nicholson hopes world juniors can boost morale during uncertain times

Shawn McKenzie is joined by Chris Johnston and Justin Bourne to discuss why the fans have the most to gain from the NHL having an all-Canadian division for the upcoming season.

EDMONTON — Like all of us, it hits Bob Nicholson from every side these days.

The chairman of the Edmonton Oilers is watching as the National Hockey League seeks a financial path that makes sense to begin play the 2020-21 season. The International Ice Hockey Federation, of which he is a vice-president, has cancelled most of its events and will soon enter the great unknown of a bubbled world juniors here in Edmonton, fingers crossed.

Personally, Nicholson got off a plane from Zurich, Switzerland and tested negative at the Calgary airport. But no sooner had he arrived home in Edmonton that the phone rang and an IIHF colleague had tested positive. To the clinic, he went, to be tested again.

There are, for all of us, a series of tests these days, both real and metaphorical. For Nicholson, they come in many forms in a business that sits latent, with millions of dollars going out and no revenues coming in.

“It’s really tough,” he admits. “All the various expenses, staffing… It’s really tough on people. We’ve really reduced our staff. That’s the toughest thing, because you’re affecting families.

“On the digital side. In sales. A lot in ticketing, and also a lot on the marketing side,” he said of layoffs at the Oilers Entertainment Group. “We haven’t had a lot of cuts in human resources and finance, but those people are just working so many hours. So the people who are working are working harder than they’ve ever worked — and they’re on rollback. Where’s that life balance that we always talk about?”

Balance. Remember balance?

When you could spend a summer away from hockey knowing that, come October, you could binge-watch NHL games again?

Canadians watched hockey in July, August and September — sort of — and today the rink that housed the Stanley Cup Final sits dead empty. No Elton John, no WWE, no Harlem Globetrotters, no Disney on Ice. And no Oilers, or the junior Oil Kings.

“It’s really tough to look at,” Nicholson said. “That’s why we’re working so hard to make sure the world juniors work. It helps us get people back working, and it makes the building alive again. It’s just good for morale.”

On the day that we spoke, Hockey Canada had cancelled an intra-squad game and shut down Team Canada training camp for a day after two players had tested positive for COVID-19 in Red Deer, Alta. More than anything, it was a sign of Hockey Canada’s vigilance toward COVID-19, though it did cause us to ask if it was "for sure" that the world juniors would open on Dec. 25 as planned.

“Nothing’s for sure,” Nicholson said, with a knowing chuckle. “I was really happy with the meetings we had in Zurich. The protocols that the IIHF and Hockey Canada have put together are excellent. Really, really sound principles. Now it’s about executing the plan.

“I give so much credit to Gary Bettman and Steve Mayer, because they were so tough on the protocols (during the NHL bubble). They didn’t give an inch. The same thing is going to have to happen here, and Hockey Canada and these countries have to really abide by the conditions that are laid out. If everyone abides by them, I think we’ll see a world junior trophy handed out in January.”

Who can say anything is certain anymore? Like, for instance, the return of NHL hockey?

We keep hearing, keep agreeing, that the new schedule is imminent. But soon November will turn to December…

“Certainly Gary’s (NHL commissioner Bettman’s) goal is to start in January, but we haven’t been given any green light yet. Certainly, that time is starting to tick,” agreed Nicholson. He speaks to Oilers owner Daryl Katz multiple times a week, and like every business person these days, there is stress.

“He’s looking at it from (the viewpoint of) all his companies. He’s into OEG with hockey and entertainment, but he’s got restaurants. He’s got night clubs. He’s got the movie industry… None of those are in great shape, and he’s trying to balance all of that as it comes in. The Oilers are a huge, huge part of what he does, but it is still one piece. It’s not like a lockout, where those other businesses help the overall picture.”

Nicholson is steadfast that the NHL will play, and the Oilers will take part in a Canadian Division that would represent a pleasant change in a world full of negative ones. But, well, there’s always a "but" these days, isn’t there?

“We want to get going, but we want to make sure that the business is right,” he said. “There are a lot of scenarios. It’s not just as simple as saying, ‘Let’s start without fans, and one-third of the fans will come (by a certain date), then 50 per cent.’ We have to see models that the NHL is going to bring back from the NHLPA. There are just too many things all over the map to say one thing is ideal.

“Our league needs fans. There’s no question.”

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