Go North: Canada is NHL’s best hope to complete ambitious pandemic playoffs
The last time the Stanley Cup was presented in Canada, it was a day of infamy rather than celebration as Vancouver erupted in violence after Lord Stanley’s chalice was awarded to the Boston Bruins following Game 7 at Rogers Arena. Nine years later, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Canada represents the NHL’s best bet to complete five rounds of competition in late summer and triumphantly award the 2020 Stanley Cup.
As the NHL has whittled the candidates for its hub cities from ten to six, three Canadian cities — Toronto, Edmonton, and Vancouver — remain in play along with Las Vegas, Chicago and Los Angeles. The playoffs are scheduled to start July 30th; if the number one aim of the NHL is to complete five rounds of head-to-head competition and award the Stanley Cup in 2020, the NHL should look at the numbers, follow the science, and choose two Canadian cities to host the tournament.
When Auston Matthews and several unnamed Arizona Coyotes and Tampa Bay Lightning players tested positive for coronavirus in Arizona and Florida last Friday, NHL fans around the world cringed. While Bettman said that the positive tests would not affect the restart timetable, he and the owners know that they are on a narrow path where the slightest misfortune could derail the league.
Testing positive now gives Matthews and the other afflicted players ample time to recover before the play-in round, but a similar outbreak during the playoffs would have a more devastating effect. If just a single team loses three or four players to positive tests during the playoffs, the NHL would have an unenviable choice: kick the affected team out of the tournament or pause the entire competition for two weeks. If multiple players on multiple teams were infected, the NHL would have no choice but to shut down; there would be no alternative.
Sin City Issues…
When the NBA decided to “go to Disney World” to complete its season, there is no doubt that the NHL, having announced its hub city concept, would love to anoint Vegas as its premiere location. You can almost see the opening montage on NBC as the blimp glides over the strip and the cameras scan past the MGM and New York, New York to focus in on T-Mobile arena.
Unfortunately, there are some very big issues with hosting a Las Vegas tournament. While the case numbers are not surging to the extent of their Arizona neighbors, the graph line is going in the wrong direction: positive cases per day have tripled in Vegas since June 1 and the infection rate is now approximately 200 new cases per million per day. Even more disturbingly, the current transmission factor for Nevada (also known as R0, for those scientifically inclined) is at 1.4, the highest number in the US for any state with more than two million people.*
To compound the problem, Las Vegas is almost completely dependent on out-of-state tourism and social gatherings in indoor venues for their economy. The average high temperature in August is 104° — there will be no outdoor activities to limit the risk of transmission, so even if cases spike to levels that tax the healthcare system, it will be very difficult to slow the spread without completely closing the city — and the ice rinks.
Finally, while the players gathered in hub cities will undoubtedly limit their contact with the general public, we cannot expect a 1970’s Red Army tour situation where players are locked inside their hotel rooms when not playing. We are talking a minimum of 10 weeks to complete the tournament, and there will be contact between the players and the community.
O Canada: Numbers Don’t Lie
While the US struggles with surges, hotspots, and a myriad of political problems, across the border there is a much different reality. While the virus has certainly hit the Great White North and caused over eight thousand deaths, the social distancing measures, re-opening strategies, and contact tracing have reduced the waterfall to a trickle.
Toronto and Edmonton have averages of under 20 new daily cases per million. Even the most stable US city still under consideration, Chicago, has five times that number, while Vegas and Los Angeles are 10 times that rate and climbing. Meanwhile, Vancouver — which consistently finishes atop lists of the world’s cleanest cities — is averaging only three cases per million, the best rate of any city in North America.
To illustrate the levels of magnitude difference we are talking about: on Monday, June 22, 2600 people in Los Angeles County — one of the remaining hub candidates — tested positive; also Monday, 284 Canadians tested positive… in the entire country! Yes, one county had 10 times the infections of all of Canada.
A Season in the Balance
There is, of course, more to the decision of where to compete for the Stanley Cup than virus numbers. Twenty four of the 31 NHL teams are based in the US, and the public relations hit that the NHL would take for 100% Canadian content is certainly a factor. Another element is the political impression of the 24 US owners in effect saying that they must abandon the country to safely and successfully conduct a two-month tournament.
But contrast this with the ignominy of a two-week pause or the dire consequences of cancelling a tournament already underway. While holding the playoffs in two Canadian cities would not guarantee success, the odds of having a Cup awarded in October must be five to ten times better if Vancouver and Toronto, for instance, would be chosen over a US hub..
As we have seen from the restart of baseball in Asia and soccer in Europe, team sports are entirely possible where infection rates are low and precautionary measures put in place. The sad fact is, those conditions are not present in the US, and will not be in the foreseeable future. Go north young men... Go north!
(Rt is the real-time R0 value for a particular area)