Connor McDavid knows what it looks like to some.
Millionaire hockey players travelling province to province for games when everyone else is asked to refrain from doing anything remotely similar as the COVID-19 pandemic’s second wave wreaks personal and financial havoc from coast to coast to coast.
“It’s unprecedented times,” McDavid said. “We’re not blind to understand that we’re very lucky to be able to come into work to play the game that we love.”
But the captain of the Edmonton Oilers — the sport’s superstar of superstars — also wants critics to understand that among the reasons the NHL is giving it a shot is to try and add some normalcy to what is looking like an increasingly dark winter of 2021.
“People are stuck at home and they need something to do,” McDavid said. “We’re going to play every other day for the next four or five months.
“We’re putting our bodies on the line not only for each other, but the fans.”
The NHL’s shortened 56-game season, which includes a one-time-only North Division consisting of Canada’s seven teams to avoid crossing the border — fans also won’t be allowed into arenas as things stand — is set to begin Wednesday. Players have been tested every day during training camp, and that will continue for at least the first four weeks of the schedule.
And when teams head out on the road, they’ll be restricted to the hotel and arena. No restaurants or mixing with the general population allowed.
“It’s to keep us safe,” Vancouver Canucks captain Bo Horvat said. “It’s to keep the people in the community safe.”
By contrast, a person could fly from Toronto to Edmonton or Winnipeg to Ottawa tomorrow and not face any restrictions upon arrival.
“It’s not apples to apples,” Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin said. “We’re getting tested every single day.
“I’m aware that it’s not easy for anybody, but it is what it is.”
Like a number of league executives, Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff was on some of the conference calls as the NHL, the players’ association and various levels of government hashed out public health protocols acceptable to all parties.
“It’s not something that’s taken lightly,” he said of playing in a pandemic. “Having sports is about more than the wins and the losses. I think it’s about a mental psyche of a community, a mental psyche of a society.
“I think everyone’s looking for something to make them feel good.”
But is it fair that professional athletes get to play and earn a living as COVID-19 case counts continue to rise, the country creeps towards 17,000 deaths, businesses fail and amateur sports — from minor hockey to gymnastics — remain on ice?
“I understand that there are people against it,” Toronto Maple Leafs centre Jason Spezza said. “We’re all very cognizant of the fact that we’re lucky we’re allowed to keep working.”
“It’s not lost on us what’s going on outside our four walls,” Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving added of the optics. “We’ve taken every precaution we possibly can to do this as safely and responsibly in the time that we’re in. I understand there will be different views, and I respect those.
“But I think as a league we’ve taken every possible consideration.”
The NHL pulled off the restart to its pandemic-delayed 2019-20 season in August and September thanks to tightly controlled bubbles that resulted in zero positive tests in Toronto and Edmonton. While the upcoming campaign will have plenty of measures in place, it’s not the same level of protection.
U.S.-based teams have also being aligned in newly formed divisions, and like the franchises north of the border, will only play against those clubs to cut down on travel and the chance of infection.
But there have already been cracks.
The Dallas Stars announced Friday six players and two staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 during camp, while the Columbus Blue Jackets kept some of their roster off the ice out of “an abundance of caution.” Then on Saturday, the Pittsburgh Penguins cancelled practice for the same reason.
No members of Canadian teams have so far tested positive during camp.
Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said the rules and protocols actually go beyond the players to include their own personal bubbles, which in turn should create team bubbles that, while not as secure as the summer, it’s hoped will further limit risk of exposure.
“The protocols that are in place are extremely restricted to not only them, but their families, and where they’re permitted to go and what they’re permitted to do,” Dubas said. “Hopefully as we get near the end of everything, we’ll be able to have fans back in our building and enjoy things in the spring and summer as normal as possible. But first and foremost is the health and safety of everybody.”
Montreal winger Brendan Gallagher said apart from raising spirits, playing can help to boost a struggling economy.
“There’s so many people who rely on these games,” he said. “It’s a game for us, but for a lot of people it’s a business. When you look at these provinces that are bleeding for money right now, they need these games.
“We are in the entertainment business, but it’s a business, and money needs to be made. Hopefully we can get through this thing and everyone can stay safe, but we have a job to do and we’ve been asked to do it. We’re happy to oblige. ”
And while a section of society will no doubt be opposed, the race for the Stanley Cup is now right around the corner.
“Some people may not love the idea that we’re able to travel and play,” McDavid said. “But we’re lucky to be able to come into work and do it for the fans sitting at home.”
-With files from Gemma Karstens-Smith in Vancouver.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 10, 2021.
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