Fast Action, And Fair So Far
All over the world, one of the first political acts after coronavirus declared itself was to shut down all sports events. Now, with the same coronavirus persisting, and in some cases expanding, its dismal influence, many of the same elected individuals are rushing to open those events as widely and as often as possible.
It’s obvious that presidents, commissioners and other leaders in the athletic world are doing their best to keep up with this mad charge to activity that features millionaires on local, national and international television. The majority agrees it is neither wise nor important to wait for fans to fill the seats before starting or replacing seasons in all major-league sports.
North America’s four most-watched pro sports – soon to be recognized as five, including soccer — have already declared preferred, possible or potential starting dates: officials in every case are ensuring that large or small COVID-19 outbreaks could force further adjustments and, of course, ultimate elimination of their entire project.
At this moment, baseball is dealing with the sad fact that many teams are dealing with fierce emergencies. A lot of programs have been shut down and there have been stated suspicions that some facilities will not be suitable for the 30 home games designated in a stormy agreement finally set by players and owners last week.
Like everyone else, the Toronto Blue Jays have standard concerns about staff and players contracting the virus, but finding a place for home games may turn out to be more urgent. Permission has been granted to train in Toronto for the scheduled 60-game season but some cautious souls still suggest it is more likely that the young Jays will be required to nest this season in nearby Buffalo or distant Dunedin, Fla. American infection numbers indicate the problem of bringing players across the border into Canada could become politically and medically improbable by the scheduled July 22 season opener.
Here in Alberta, the saga of the Blue Jays, as well as the fascinating basketball Raptors who will be competing by the end of July, fades in a dull colour by comparison with the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers who open their official training camps on Monday.
A Stanley Cup playoff run could extend to as many as 33 games for survivors in the best-of-seven final, which will be staged entirely at spectacular Rogers Place. Only because of Alberta’s relative success in tamping down the coronavirus did the NHL finally designate Edmonton as a “hub city” after making it obvious from the beginning of all this talk that Las Vegas and Toronto (the other hub) were the favoured communities.
Almost from Day 1 after the NHL declared it would somehow present the 2020 Stanley Cup to a legitimate playoff champion, commissioner Gary Bettman insisted that safety was the “biggest issue and most serious concern” for all. Granting that some insiders were less than thrilled at the decision to involve so many teams in a one-series-loss-and-you’re-out scenario, he still believes the proper move was to involve teams that had not been officially eliminated when the season wrapped up on March 16.
“The competitive balance in our league is so extraordinary,” he said, “that we had to make sure it was for all to get a chance to win.”
Admittedly, the plan took effect in a massive hurry. Now, there is league-wide concern that one of the eight outsiders admitted to the playoffs might somehow win the Cup and wind up with a high draft choice – perhaps Number One. If that case, weaker teams who lose out can be expected to yell: “Not fair.!”
Fans still drawn to arenas despite secure zones as NHL returns to ice
EDMONTON — It was almost 30 C as Edmonton Oilers fan Darnell Belcourt stood outside the protective bubble that surrounds Rogers Place and waited for the puck to drop in the team’s opening qualifying round game against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The jumbo screen he was watching was inside the fence that surrounded a plaza that’s intended for players, coaches and staff to relax outdoors, but a few fans like Belcourt still felt it was the best place to watch as the NHL resumed its COVID-19 truncated season on Saturday.
“I’m going to be here every game. Next time I’m going to bring a chair, though,” Belcourt laughed as he alternated between standing on concrete and sitting on the small window ledge of a nearby office building.
Comfy chairs and cold beer weren’t far away, however, as many fans filled bars near Rogers Place — at least as much as new social-distancing rules would allow.
“It’s going on right there!” exclaimed Hanna Warawa, who watched the game on a screen set up on the patio of Mercer’s Tavern, directly across the street from the arena.
David Clanahan, who watched at the Thrift Shop bar not far away, said August seemed like a weird time to watch hockey. But hot as it was, he still wore a jersey.
“It’s way too hot, but worth it,” he said.
In Toronto, the streets around Scotiabank Arena and its nearby secure zone were relatively quiet when the first game between the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes began earlier on Saturday.
Many nearby restaurants were closed and much of the perimeter around the arena was blocked off. Kellys Landing Bar Grill Hub Restaurant was showing the games on its screens near the arena but had many tables available — a better indication of interest in Canada’s biggest city might come Sunday night when the host Maple Leafs open against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Jordan Alexander, manager of Sport Chek at Maple Leaf Square near the arena, said they’re selling about one-eighth the amount of Leafs merchandise compared to Toronto Raptors items in recent weeks. The Raptors also began their restart on Saturday near Orlando, Fla.
Alexander figured some streets might be shut down for some fanfare, but that didn’t happen and so far “it’s been pretty minimal impact.”
“I was expecting to see fans waiting to see the players,” he said. “I thought people might come down, but people have been respectful in terms of giving space and all of that. “
Self-described “massive Leafs fans” Michael Papaeliou and Alyssa Derosario made a day trip to the city from Markham, Ont., to visit the Hockey Hall of Fame and possibly catch a game on TV at a restaurant Saturday.
“So excited for it to return,” Papaeliou said. “The NHL is doing a really great job, better than any other league, to make this work.”
They praised the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols, and the blockades set up around the Fairmont Royal York, one of two hotels the NHL is using in Toronto.
“Especially in a city like Toronto that’s so busy, it’s good to see that they’re practising the right rules and regulations safety-wise,” said Derosario.
During the Oilers-Blackhawks game in Edmonton, about 40 adults and children stood on Jasper Avenue not far from Rogers Place protesting an indoor mask bylaw that went into effect in the city Saturday.
Many fans watching in bars, however, seemed to appreciate the precautions the bars were taking, such as requiring people to sanitize their hands when they entered.
“It seemed like the best way to still watch the game around some people but still taking some reasonable safety precautions,” Clanahan said.
Nicholas O’Connell, who was also at Thrift Shop, said he had his mask, and was just thankful hockey was back.
“We didn’t think we’d be sitting here a couple of months ago because of COVID, and now we’re able to hang out with our friends which is pretty good.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 1, 2020.
— With files from Victoria Ahearn in Toronto and Donna Spencer in Edmonton.
Rob Drinkwater, The Canadian Press
Kubalik nets 5 points as Blackhawks stun Oilers 6-4 in NHL qualifier opener
EDMONTON — Rookie winger Dominik Kubalik scored two goals and added three assists, leading the Chicago Blackhawks to a 6-4 win over the host Edmonton Oilers in the opener of their best-of-five qualifying round series on Saturday.
Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews chipped in two goals and one assist.
Connor McDavid had a goal and three assists for Edmonton.
It was a continuation of the torrid scoring pace set by Kubalik, a 24-year-old Czech forward and a Calder Trophy finalist. He racked up 30 goals and 16 assists before regular-season play was halted in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Wednesday’s exhibition game against St. Louis, he had two goals and an assist.
Kubalik and the Hawks took control early in the afternoon contest, the first in Edmonton as part of the NHL’s restart.
He notched three assists as the Hawks blitzed the Oilers with four goals in the first 13 minutes of the game to take a 4-1 lead.
Kubalik then scored twice in the second period, his first goal chasing starter Mike Smith from the Oilers net (five goals on 23 shots), and his second getting past Smith’s replacement, Mikko Koskinen, to make it 6-2.
Three of Edmonton’s goals came on the power play.
Things looked good for the Oilers, and their top-ranked power play, early in the first period. The Hawks took a penalty and McDavid walked in from the faceoff circle and fired a wrist shot over the right shoulder of Hawks goalie Corey Crawford to make it 1-0 at the 2:34 mark.
Then the wheels came off.
Smith, notorious as a wandering gambler out of his crease, coughed up the puck behind the net to Dylan Strome, who proceeded to bank it in off his pad and into the net at 5:51.
On the next three goals, Smith got very little help from this teammates, who wilted under the Blackhawks’ ferocious forecheck, often caught standing around or turning over the puck.
At 7:56, Toews, left alone in the slot on the power play, buried a wrist shot under the bar, glove side on Smith.
At 9:17, an Olli Maatta blueline wrist shot was double deflected in the slot to fly over Smith’s goalpad and in. Brandon Saad got credit for the goal.
At 12:57, Kubalik swooped around the net and dished the puck to an unmolested Toews in the crease, who redirected the puck past Smith.
The Oilers showed some life early in the second period. They made it 4-2, again on the power play, when McDavid, behind the end line, passed the puck to Leon Draisaitl, who one-timed it past Crawford.
Kubalik quickly got that one back, on the power play, taking a cross-ice pass and shooting from the top of the faceoff circle to Smith’s left, sniping the puck over his shoulder and into the net. That was it for Smith.
With time winding down in the period, Kubalik, standing in front of the net, deflected a Duncan Keith blueline slapshot to make it 6-2.
The Oilers scored two goals with less than four minutes to go in the contest to make things interesting.
Edmonton’s James Neal scored on a goal-mouth scramble and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins tipped in an Oscar Klefbom point shot.
The game was played in front of tarps, massive video screens, and empty seats at Rogers Place, which is hosting the 12 Western Conference teams as the NHL completes the 2019-20 season.
While Edmonton, with a better regular season record, was technically the “home team” the sights and sounds of the game were neutral. Goal horns would sound when either team scored, and there were revved-up announcements over the loudspeaker when the Hawks or the Oilers went on the power play.
Goaltending for the Oilers was a question mark heading into the series.
Both Smith and Koskinen had put up similar numbers working in a platoon in the regular season. Smith was 19-12-6 record with a .902 save percentage. Koskinen was 18-13-3 with a .917 save percentage.
The real goaltending question mark was supposed to be Crawford.
The veteran goalie is seen as critical to Chicago’s success, given its leaky defence this year, but only began skating again last week after contracting COVID-19. Crawford was 16-20-3 with a .917 save percentage in the regular season.
Crawford looked sharp Saturday but didn’t see too many dangerous shots. Chicago outshot Edmonton 43-29.
The Blackhawks, 32-30-8 in the regular season, were decided underdogs.
They were trending out of the playoff picture and finished 23rd overall when regular-season play was suspended. They are the bottom seed among the 12 teams playing in the Western Conference elimination round.
The Oilers, seeded fifth with a 37-25-9 record (12th in NHL), were seen as the favourite, especially given they have the two top point-getters this season in the NHL: Draisaitl (110 points) and McDavid (97 points).
Game 2 goes Monday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published August 1, 2020.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press
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