No matter where you gaze, the world looks strange and terrible this summer.
In the U.S., federal troops corral citizen protesters in the streets of major cities. In Hungary, Turkey, Belarus and other nations, despotic leaders are trying to carve out more power for themselves, with varying degrees of success.
In almost every corner of the globe, new or resurgent COVID-19 outbreaks claim thousands of lives every day as the pandemic death toll approaches 664,000.
By comparison, playing hockey at the start of August seems downright wholesome, if not outright normal.
And that’s entirely the point of the midsummer spectacle underway in Edmonton and Toronto, where 24 National Hockey League teams are about to compete in the belated Stanley Cup playoffs.
For every fan put off by the prospect of NHL hockey taking place at the same time as a planetary plague and the potential twilight of democracy, there’s another fan desperate for the distraction.
Likewise, for every hockey purist who insists no puck ought to be dropped on the same night they have to swat mosquitoes and sweat in their undies, there’s a dejected fan who never get over the manner in which the league suspended play in the middle of March, when the worldwide pandemic was declared.
The Winnipeg-Vancouver exhibition match slated for Wednesday night likely has more appeal to many Canadians than this year’s Oscars, last year’s Game of Thrones finale and tomorrow’s Justin Trudeau testimony combined, albeit with far less bloodshed.
Nobody bothers to bodycheck during a meaningless scrimmage, especially days before the start of actual playoffs.
You can argue all you want this playoff hockey shouldn’t be happening, for all manner of fantastic reasons.
Is the 2020 post-season a cash grab by the NHL? Sure. Do five rounds of Stanley Cup playoffs constitute an exercise in what can be done, rather than what should be done during a time of high risk and severe uncertainty? Absolutely.
Is it weird to watch hockey when you’re swatting at mosquitoes and sweating in your undies? Yeah, and you can thank me later for that mental image.
Still, no amount of moralizing is going to stop the 24-team train already barrelling toward the start of the Stanley Cup qualifying round on Saturday.
And no quantity of cognitive dissonance is going to dissuade many if not most NHL fans from tuning in to playoffs where every NHL team is healthy, well rested and for now, entirely free of the contagion that got us here.
Either due to dumb luck or unusual self-discipline, not a single playoff-bound NHL player is currently infected with COVID-19. For now, it makes the architects of the Toronto-Edmonton bubble look like logistical geniuses.
No one can get in, including the sports reporters who dutifully cover the league. No one can get out, save for heavily masked hotel and practice-facility workers.
The league may have had no choice but to build its bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto, where the no-longer-novel coronavirus is far less prevalent than in any of the pandemic tire-fire options south of the Canada-U.S. border. The decision still makes the NHL appear more prudent than other professional sports leagues.
Major League Baseball’s decision to forgo bubble play has already led to 17 COVID-19 infections in the Miami Marlins franchise, who have the misfortune of playing in Florida, one of most pandemic-affected states in the U.S.
The NBA and Major League Soccer opted for bubble play, albeit in Orlando, which also happens to be in Florida.
The NFL is not planning on building a bubble for its upcoming season. Meanwhile, the Canadian Football League will play in a Winnipeg bubble if a three-down football season happens at all in 2020.
The CFL can’t stage a truncated season until it reaches a new labour deal with its players, secures funding from the federal government and maybe some form of additional support from the six provinces where the league has teams.
So in CFL-obsessed cities like Winnipeg, Friday night football will soon be replaced by Saturday night hockey, Monday afternoon hockey and Tuesday evening hockey.
And so on and so forth, until a Stanley Cup champion is crowned at Rogers Place in Edmonton in late September or early October, assuming the pandemic doesn’t scuttle the entire enterprise before then and some new horror doesn’t emerge to consume the planet.
If you’re still not convinced that the summer of 2020 is the time for a Stanley Cup circus, consider there is no time when the planet has been devoid of disaster and calamity.
The only difference now is the western world is in the thick of it. Most ordinary Canadians are suffering, economically and psychologically, if not physiologically.
If you can’t have hockey, why is it OK to have Netflix, or artisanal sourdough, or whatever it was that got you through the pandemic so far?
Professional sport is entertainment. Entertainment is a distraction. If no one gets sick and dies as a result of the 2020 Stanley Cup experiment, then it will be a welcome distraction for the fans who do tune in and won’t harm anyone who does not.
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