Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto hope to be NHL hubs, but there’s a catch

Tim Shipton lets out a deep breath. A laugh quickly follows.

The Edmonton Oilers senior vice-president of communications and government relations is pondering a question about how long the team has been working on its bid to serve as an NHL hub city, should the league return to action sometime this summer.

“It feels like months, if not years,” Shipton said. “Time works in a funny way right now. We’ve been deep on this thing.”

That thing is trying to convince NHL, which paused its season March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, that their city is the right spot to host 12 teams as part of a plan to complete the 2019-20 season and award the Stanley Cup.

It could also wind up being entirely out of their hands.

The NHL, which unveiled its return-to-play plan Tuesday that would feature 24 teams if the league is able to resume, announced that Vancouver and Toronto are also in the running along with Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis/St. Paul in the U.S.

The goal is to name two cities, but deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the Canadian government’s mandatory 14-quarantine for anyone entering the country would make markets north of the 49th parallel a non-starter.

“If we’re not able to really get an interpretation of the quarantine consistent with our players’ ability to travel in and not have to do a strict self-quarantine in a hotel room … we won’t be in a position to use any of the Canadian cities as a hub,” Daly said. “So we’re faced with having to find a solution to that. And hopefully we can.”

The NHL said it will wait another three or four weeks before announcing its hub plans.

“We are having various discussions with various different departments in the Canadian government,” Daly added. “We don’t have a resolution there, but it’s an ongoing dialogue.”

Weeks, not months or years, is what it took for the Oilers to prepare and submit hundreds of pages of documents to the NHL on everything from Rogers Place — their state-of-the-art home that opened in 2016 — to practice facilities, accommodations, and the province’s and city’s low novel coronavirus infection rate.

“We’ve really laid the groundwork on all fronts, with the government in particular, on what’s most important, health and safety,” Shipton said in a phone interview. “We’ve developed a comprehensive framework with the government on how we would run this thing in a safe way.”

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The Vancouver Canucks put in a bid similar to the Oilers, with a document trumpeting the benefits of that city as a hub, including its infrastructure and temperate summer climate, according to a team source granted anonymity because they weren’t authorized to comment publicly.

“We see this as something that could be a positive initiative in a challenging time,” Canucks COO Trent Carroll said in a statement. “Maybe bring a bit of hope and a spark back to the community.”

But while British Columbia Premier John Horgan has been vocal about Vancouver as a hub, Dr. Bonnie Henry, the province’s health officer, said the government won’t be making any concessions in a jurisdiction that has done well to minimize infections.

“I would love to have hockey, but we have been very clear, and the premier has been very clear, that we’re not bending the rules in any way that would put what we have achieved here in B.C. at risk,” Henry said Tuesday. “I’ve yet to see a plan. I’m happy to see what we can do, but we won’t be changing rules that would put anybody at risk or would undo the good work that we’ve done.”

A spokesman for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the parent company of the Toronto Maple Leafs, declined to comment their bid, but Canada’s biggest city has all the amenities the league would require, although Ontario’s infection numbers are considerably higher than Alberta and B.C.

Back in Edmonton, Shipton said the Oilers have been thoroughly impressed with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, describing him as an “all-star” throughout the process.

“We talked to him very early about this as an opportunity for the province,” Shipton said. “It aligns with his government’s vision for reopening.”

“We’ve got a tremendous pitch,” Kenney said during a recent media availability. “I think we are the safest place they could find in the continent to come and, in a very thoughtful and careful way, finish off the season with the playoffs.”

In a letter to the prime minister dated May 26, Kenney requested Justin Trudeau consider an exemption in order to help facilitate Edmonton’s bid to be a hub city.

“On May 22, 2020 the government of the United States, through Acting Homeland Security Secretary Wolf, allowed for an exemption that enabled the entry of certain foreign athletes, their staff, and league leadership into the United States,” Kenney wrote.

“Such an exemption from the Canadian government would be necessary to enable the OEG bid to play host to the NHL playoffs. The government of Alberta believes there are effective strategies in place to mitigate any risk for our province if such an exemption was granted.”

Kenney said Edmonton has some of the lowest levels of active COVID-19 cases in North America among cities of a similar size and population density. He also noted the “unique infrastructure” of Edmonton’s Ice District provides “an additional level of public safety.”

“A number of hotels connect directly to Rogers Place via secure pedways, and therefore an effective quarantine zone could be established,” Kenney wrote.

“This would allow for NHL teams, comprised of international players, to safely resume the season without impacting the safety of the surrounding community.”

On May 20, Kenney said hockey players arriving in Alberta “will all have to go through the same screening protocols” as other arriving international travellers.

Kenney made the comments while announcing increased COVID-19 health and safety measures that have been implemented for all incoming international travellers at both the Edmonton and Calgary airports, as well as the Coutts land border crossing.

Those protocols include a thermal temperature check for all international travellers.

Travellers will also be required to detail their 14-day self-isolation plan, which must outline how they will get to their self-isolation location, how they will get groceries and medications delivered to them and who specifically — family or friends — will support them as they self-isolate.

Kenney did note at the time that Rogers Place being connected to hotels would provide “a self-isolation zone, in principle.”

“We’ve spoken to the federal government about that because obviously the players and their support staff would need to comply not only with our own public health orders but also the federal 14-day quarantine requirement for travellers arriving from abroad.”

While other cities have gone about their pitches relatively quietly, Shipton said there’s a reason the Oilers are more vocal about Edmonton.

It’s no secret that like some other colder locales, the Alberta capital is viewed as an undesirable landing spot for some NHL players.

But that’s in the winter.

“Edmonton in the summer is beautiful,” Shipton said. “There’s so many things going for the city that we feel like we’re a little underrated in that category.

“It’s important for us to get out and not be shy about it — be proud that we’ve got a beautiful city.”

And for a province that’s been hit with the double economic blow of cratering oil prices and a crippling pandemic, hosting 12 NHL teams and helping get hockey back on track could be a shot in the arm.

“We’re such a passionate hockey province,” Shipton said. “There’s no doubt that it’s been a very difficult time for a lot of individuals and a lot of businesses.

“We think it’s not just an economic boost, it would be a really significant morale boost for the province at a time when maybe we need it the most.”

With files from Caley Ramsay, Global News.

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