Brian Burke says the NHL and other professional sports leagues should vaccinate their players as soon as possible — partially to get people safely into arenas for games, but also for public outreach.
“I’ve heard people in pro sports say, like if LeBron James gets the vaccine, that’s going to convince a whole lot of people in the U.S. that are uncertain right now that it’s a good thing,” Burke told The Current’s guest host Catherine Cullen.
“So to me, if this will aid or improve the numbers that get the vaccination on time, then I think it’s a great idea.”
Burke, an analyst for Sportsnet and former general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, Toronto Maple Leafs and Anaheim Ducks, was responding to earlier reports that the National Hockey League was interested in purchasing doses of a COVID-19 vaccine once private purchases become available.
Gary Meagher, the league’s executive vice-president of communications, told CBC News that the report was not accurate.
A spokesperson for Pfizer — whose vaccine created in tandem with BioNTech was approved by Health Canada — said the company’s only client for the COVID-19 vaccine in the country is Public Services and Procurement Canada.
Two COVID-19 vaccines, one by Pfizer-BioNTech and another by Moderna, have so far been approved for use in Canada.
At-risk demographics, ‘key politicians’ come first: Burke
Burke affirmed that players aren’t the most important demographic, however, and that frontline health-care workers, first responders and people living in remote Indigenous communities must come first.
“You will always be able to point to a set of people and say, well, they’re at higher risk or they’re more entitled,” he said.
“What I’m suggesting is, if these athletes are going to come in contact with the public, and if they are role models that will actually improve the vaccination numbers, do it.”
Burke also said that “key politicians,” including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, should be near the front of the line for the vaccine for the same reason.
“I think the prime minister should be vaccinated before anyone else,” said Burke.
Trudeau told CBC’s Rosemary Barton he has no plans to get an early dose of the vaccine, saying he would wait until it’s time for healthy people of his age to get the shot.
Other world leaders, including U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, have received vaccine doses in front of cameras, to build confidence among the public.
Burke estimated it might not be until late summer or early fall of 2021 before crowds pile into an arena again to watch a live hockey game.
“The key here is to get everyone vaccinated. I mean, that’s the only way that we can get back to normal with full buildings and large crowds,” he said.
In the meantime, the NHL and NHL Players’ Association has agreed on a 56-game season to begin this January, entertaining empty seats or cardboard cutouts of audience members in the meantime.
All seven Canadian teams will play in their own division and only play each other over the season in their home markets. Any U.S.-based team will have to quarantine for 14 days if they cross the border, as it’s currently closed for all but essential travel.
“We really don’t have a choice on that, given what the Canadian health authorities, the position they’ve taken — and which is reasonable, I’m not being critical.” said Burke.
“I think this is the only option. But I think it’s an exciting option, if you’re a Canadian hockey fan.”
Expect more fights this season, Burke says
Burke predicted that viewers can expect players to get even more heated than usual, since teams will repeatedly face off against each other in more games than usual.
“You’re going to see a lot more anger and a lot more truculence, and a lot more animosity amongst the teams,” he said.
“When you play a team that often, then things pile up fast, grudges pile up fast, you’re going to see a spike in fighting and and hitting.”
Burke, who has defended fighting in hockey despite increasing data about the seriousness of head injuries sustained on the ice because of brawls and hits, staunchly held his position on the matter.
“I don’t want to go back to the old days. When I played in the American League we had six, seven fights a night. That’s not what I’m talking about.
“But I love the accountability in the game. And if you run a goaltender or you run a star player, you’re going to have to fight somebody. And I hope we never lose that.”
Written by Jonathan Ore with files from CBC News. Produced by Ben Jamieson.