Edmonton doctor questions safety of NHL's hub city return

The COVID-19 pandemic has asked a lot from people, preventing them in some cases from going to funerals, hosting weddings or visiting newborns.

Those who've sacrificed for pandemic may not like accommodations made for NHL

An Edmonton doctor is worried that the return of hockey to Rogers Place could send the wrong message to fans. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

With playoff hockey coming soon to Edmonton, one local physician is worried the accommodations made for the NHL could send mixed messages to people who have sacrificed a lot during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Hakique Virani, a clinical associate professor with the University of Alberta's faculty of medicine, said many people have made personal sacrifices for the sake of public health in recent months, and bringing the NHL playoffs to Edmonton could send the wrong message.

"I think that for some people, it feels like an equity issue, that we can make such accommodations for a large, full-contact sporting event," said Dr. Hakique Virani.

"As excited as I am to have hockey back, I worry about the mixed messages that it sends."

The NHL and its players' union formally signed an agreement on Friday confirming that playoff hockey will return this summer in Edmonton and Toronto.

Virani, who was interviewed Monday on Edmonton AM, originally expressed this concern on Twitter that their plan could be a bad idea.

He said he doesn't want to throw cold water on something that's eagerly anticipated, but people are waiting for a signal that life is returning to normal after the pandemic. The NHL's return could feel like that signal, even though Alberta has seen a recent uptick in new COVID-19 cases since Friday.

"If it feels to people like a big green light that COVID is tempering or that it's going away, it's unfortunately the wrong message," Virani said. 

The province, meanwhile, is excited by the news. Premier Jason Kenney praised the hub city announcement in a video posted to Twitter on Friday.

"We are going to get an unbelievable amount of free advertising across North America and around the world that will set us up well for the future relaunch of our tourism industry when travel comes back post-COVID," Kenney said in the video.

Virani said COVID-19 poses a long-term risk for athletes who could struggle with respiratory problems long after they've otherwise recovered from the illness.

"We've learned that if you survive COVID infection, there may well be long-term respiratory effects, and elite athletes kind of need their pulmonary fitness," Virani said. 

"As it is, they've got very short careers and we would hate for somebody's career to be cut even shorter by COVID infection."

A breach of the hub city's bubble, he said, could affect arena staff and security. The risk extends to fans as well.

Virani noted that in Kelowna, a recent COVID-19 outbreak was connected to a Cactus Club Cafe. Pubs and restaurants are popular places to watch hockey games in big groups, he said, and the NHL's return could make fans want to do the same in Edmonton, even though the province may not be ready.

Dan Mason, a University of Alberta sports economist, said the athletes may be safer in Edmonton's bubble than they were at home, where they could have been exposed to COVID-19 in public.

For fans, Mason said he doesn't expect the risk of people meeting in public to watch games will be any different just because Edmonton is hosting the games. Any city with an NHL team that goes on a successful run this postseason faces the same risk, he said.

"The onus is going to be on the province and on the people in the province to make sure they abide by social distancing regulations," Mason said.

"Having said that, if any team goes on a Stanley Cup run, that's going to create more incentives for fans to get together and celebrate."