Here was something we hadn’t seen since the world changed: The Toronto Raptors took a road trip Monday, their first since the coronavirus shut down sports more than 100 days earlier. Not that there was an actual road game in the immediate offing. With the NBA’s July 30 restart still more than a month in the distance, the defending champions flew to Fort Myers, Fla. to begin the next phase of the league’s return-to-play plan at Florida Gulf Coast University.
And as they took to the skies, a question popped to mind: Why? Or, more to the point, why Florida?
Why base this portion of the basketball ramp-up in a U.S. state that’s lately become infamous for being on fire with new coronavirus cases? Why leave Toronto, where the virus is on the decline, for a place where it’s alarmingly on the rise?
It was just last week that one U.S.-based group of medical professionals pointed to Florida as COVID-19’s next potential epicentre. And while the state’s governor, Ron DeSantis, initially blamed an increase in testing for the sharp steepening of the curve, he’s since dropped that argument. Over the week that ended Saturday, after all, Florida’s testing was down three per cent while cases were up 88 per cent, according to the COVID Tracking Project. As plans go, flying into the Sunshine State as the first step to successfully surviving the pandemic seemed a bit like taking up residence on a bar stool with the well-intentioned aim of avoiding future hangovers. Sometimes it’s obvious you’ve come to the wrong place.
Not that the Raptors didn’t have their reasons. As the NBA’s only Canadian team in a league whose workforce is predominantly American, it made sense, for umpteen reasons, to spend the ramp-up to June 30 training camp in the United States. And considering the NBA is planning to resume with 22 teams at the Disney World resort near Orlando, being in Florida makes practical sense — at least, it makes practical sense if you’re part of a league that’s all-in on taking up residence in Florida from now until Oct. 12, what’s tentatively and hopefully the date of Game 7 of the NBA Finals, should it be required.
If you’re the NBA, you’re pot committed to playing in Florida, no matter Florida’s foibles; no matter that NBA players are raising concerns that service employees at Disney won’t be residing within the so-called bubble, which makes the bubble seem awfully leaky; no matter the frightening notion that the current spike in cases isn’t a peak but a climb toward exponential growth.
If you’re the NHL, though, you’re in a better spot.
Hockey’s overseers have yet to commit to the pair of hub cities that, according to its plan, will be the base for a 24-team Stanley Cup tournament the league hopes will begin late next month. It’s widely presumed Las Vegas, which lost out to Disney in its bid to host the NBA’s resumption, remains a front-runner along with a trio of Canadian locales, specifically Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver.
But this might be a moment to rethink spending a hockey summer on the strip. Among the 20-plus states currently experiencing a rise in coronavirus cases, Nevada’s circumstance isn’t as grim-looking as Florida’s. But it’s not exactly a paragon of public health policy. Las Vegas casinos, which opened earlier this month, have been widely criticized for being lax on standards. Mask-wearing by customers has only begun to be encouraged, and we’ll see how well that goes in a city synonymous with rule-flouting rebellion. And according to one service worker union, a long list of Vegas hotels — the MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay among them — are not mandating COVID-19 testing for employees returning to work. In other words, there’s a real fear that the lack of attention to accepted protocol is not only putting service industry workers and their families at risk, but putting visitors to Sin City in harm’s way.
For the NHL, the solution is easy: an all-Canadian Stanley Cup playoffs is your answer. If the U.S. is bungling the pandemic worse than any jurisdiction this side of Brazil, why not avoid the U.S. entirely and base both 12-team hubs on the less virus-infested side of the world’s longest undefended (and still rightfully unopened) border?
Going all-Canadian makes sense on a lot of levels.
If the restart is largely about money — and it clearly is — it’s a financially prudent play. As an American entity holding American dollars spending money in Canada, where a loonie costs you the equivalent of 74 cents, is like shopping exclusively from the clearance rack.
If the restart is about health — and the league has to insist it is, even if the healthiest solution to this problem is to sit this season out — it’s similarly a no-brainer. On Monday, the same day Alberta and British Columbia announced a meagre 32 new coronavirus cases apiece — with B.C.’s number accounting for three days of data — Ontario recorded its lowest number in three months with 161. Those numbers are tiny compared to the ballooning figures south of the border, and make you wonder why the league would even consider a U.S. base.
But we all know why they would. The restart isn’t simply about money and safety. It’s also about human nature.
One of the biggest concerns around the ultimate success of the bubble concept is achieving player buy-in. Organizers can put in place all the safeguards that science can conjure up, after all, but good intentions can’t make a pro athlete comply with regulations he finds onerous. If athletes are going to be asked to live apart from their families for weeks and months at a time, they’re going to need distractions. Las Vegas offers options for after-work entertainment that few cities can match, not to mention the copious first-class hotel stock that’ll be required to house the league’s contingent.
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Edmonton can’t compete with much of that, which helps explain why Alberta Premier Jason Kenney spent some of Monday tweeting out a promotional video aimed at wooing the NHL that was heavy on Edmonton’s proximity to the Rocky Mountains while omitting even the blink of an image of the city’s downtown — which is, you know, where players would theoretically need to live if the city pulled off the upset and won a bid.
Toronto and Vancouver, mind you, can compete with Vegas on lavish hotel stock and world-class restaurants and fun places for a young, rich athlete to get himself into hopefully harmless bits of trouble. In other words: advantage Canada. If it’s inevitable that players are going to venture outside the sensible limits of optimal public health protocols, surely the league would rest easier knowing they’re roaming in a place where coronavirus is in retreat.
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