Opinion: Horgan’s NHL pitch faces big hurdles

One of the more curious aspects of the B.C. government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is its unexpected whole-hearted backing of a potential plan for the National Hockey League to set up shop in this province in the middle of that pandemic.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has taken a cautious, go-slow approach to both gently shutting down some economic sectors and now restricting all sectors as the provincial government gradually tries to reopen the economy.

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That approach seems in stark contrast to Premier John Horgan’s somewhat surprising phone call to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, in which he essentially offered up the province’s entire hockey infrastructure to the league if it needs it.

The premier was not just talking about playing games in Vancouver. He also floated the idea that games could be played in such places as Prince George, Kamloops, Kelowna, Cranbrook and Victoria, all of which have junior hockey franchises and therefore available arenas.

Dr. Henry, who is clearly a big hockey fan, supports the idea as well. Health Minister Adrian Dix, a sports nut himself (do not even try to take him on in sports trivia), has not shared the same enthusiasm, but I don’t think he’s opposed to it.

On the one hand, I can see why the B.C. government is pushing the idea: hockey is hugely popular, and restoring the NHL season (or whatever form the resumption of games takes) would likely be tremendously popular and provide a significant boost to public morale, at a time when so many are hurting.

Improving public morale is vitally important when the pandemic can take such a toll on mental health. So watching hockey again – even if it’s only on TV and not actually in the stands – would do a world of good.

But on the other hand, the logistical challenges are enormous and perhaps impossible to meet. Major League Baseball has prepared a 67-page guide for their leagues’ potential reopening and the details are immense in their scope. That guide calls for constant testing of players, the complete isolation from society of everyone to do with a team or a game, the constant cleaning of equipment, and trying to keep a social distance between everyone involved at all times.

Applying complex rules to a more complex game such as hockey seems even more daunting. Hockey is a much more physical contest (many sweaty players will be spraying droplets in close proximity with each other) where social distancing is impossible.

The B.C. government will walk a fine line here. It cannot look like it is bending over backwards for a U.S.-dominated organization featuring several hundred young millionaires, at a time when 400,000 people are out of work.

Then there is the question of the league potentially coming into much more contact with our health-care system, when human and physical resources are going to be stretched to the maximum as we try to recover more than 50,000 elective surgeries.

Finally, the players would likely have to be tested for COVID-19 on a regular basis. Would that take away resources for testing elsewhere in B.C. or at potential community outbreaks of the virus?

Placed against this daunting backdrop, however, is the very real fact that people want to have fun again. Watching hockey would certainly provide some respite (I am getting tired of watching replays of playoff battles from the 1980s) on that front, but it may prove to be an elusive hope.

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