NHL

Woodbine CEO questions Ontario's decision to allow NHL games amidst lockdown

With Ontario still in lockdown and COVID-19 cases at a record high, Woodbine Entertainment CEO Jim Lawson is wondering why the provincial government signed off on NHL games being played at a time when many other sports aren't allowed to operate.

Jim Lawson laments lack of fairness in province's approval of play during lockdown

Woodbine Entertainment CEO Jim Lawson on Friday questioned why Ontario has signed off on allowing NHL games to be played in province, while many other sports aren't being allowed to operate. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press/File)

With Ontario still in lockdown and COVID-19 cases at a record high, Woodbine Entertainment CEO Jim Lawson is wondering why the provincial government signed off on NHL games being played at a time when many other sports aren't allowed to operate.

The Ontario government gave the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators the green light to stage home games during the COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday. Lisa MacLeod, the province's minister of heritage, sport, tourism and culture, said in a statement approval was granted after "close scrutiny of the rigorous health and safety protocols that will be adopted to keep players, staff and our communities safe from the spread of COVID-19."

MacLeod added the decision was reached following meetings with Ontario's chief medical officer of health and top public health officials in Toronto and Ottawa.

On Friday, Ontario reported a record 4,249 new COVID-19 cases, with roughly 450 attributable to a data-upload delay from Toronto Public Health. Premier Doug Ford hinted at further restrictions for the province in light of the new numbers.

The previous record was 3,519 cases recorded Thursday.

The Ontario government's shutdown last month forced the cancellation of harness racing at Woodbine Mohawk Park in Campbellville, Ont. Woodbine Entertainment called off its 2020 thoroughbred card at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto in November — some three weeks ahead of schedule — after horse racing was put on the restricted list as per the province's COVID-19 response.

"I appreciate the government has some very difficult choices and I really do have empathy for the positions the premier, [Ontario Health Minister] Christine Elliott and Dr. David Williams [Ontario's chief medical officer] are in," Lawson said. "I'm not so sure anyone, including us, should be or needs to be playing a sport in the midst of a provincial health lockdown with numbers over 3,000.

Live by lockdown says Lawson

"I just think, 'Is that the right thing to do?' As you watch the numbers and watch them climb and not get any better, you start to come to the realization that it's just the wrong thing to do. If you're going to have a provincial health lockdown, then you better have a health lockdown and live by, 'We only need essential personnel and essential services and we better use this period, which I think the premier called a circuit breaker, to be a circuit breaker."

MacLeod didn't immediately respond to an interview request Friday.

Word that the province and NHL were in talks about games potentially being allowed in Ontario surfaced last month. Lawson has been surprised about the absence of dialogue between the Ford government and Woodbine.

"It's surprising to me that they didn't give us more consideration or at least a nod of consideration or consultation on this," he said. "It does strike me as surprising that they haven't done that and believe me, it's not from a lack of trying on my part.

"Even a conversation saying, "Listen, we hear you. We appreciate your safety record, it's a tough time and we're not going to change our mind and we'll look at this seriously at the end of January or February.' I could accept that, but we're not even hearing that and that's frustrating to a huge backbone of rural Ontario."

I don't accept 'rigorous health and safety protocols' when you're crossing provincial borders and hopping on airplanes and going to hotels.- Jim Lawson, CEO, Woodbine Entertainment 

The COVID-19 pandemic forced Woodbine to delay the start of its 2020 thoroughbred and harness seasons roughly seven weeks. And once racing began, it was done so without spectators with only essential personnel undergoing strict measures at both Woodbine Racetrack and Woodbine Mohawk Park.

Woodbine also formed a COVID committee with a medical consultant and established its own 35-page operations manual. The end result was no positive tests at Mohawk and only one late in the thoroughbred season at Woodbine.

"I believe we set the gold standard," Lawson said. "I don't accept 'rigorous health and safety protocols' when you're crossing provincial borders and hopping on airplanes and going to hotels.

"Yes, people are going to be protected and do their best to keep [NHL players] in a bubble and put strict restrictions on player movement. But that's not nearly as good as what we had in place at Mohawk."

'No fairness'

Lawson added he's not alone in feeling frustrated by the Ontario government's decision regarding NHL games being played here.

"I'm not complaining about the NHL, I'm complaining there was no fairness, there was no process by the government," he said. "Like I said, I get it, they have difficult choices but there's a lot of people who are unhappy with this: The skiing community; amateur hockey and all of the other hockey leagues.

"They're all unhappy."

Lawson said Ontario's silence on the matter of horse racing is leaving many people in limbo.

"We have thousands of people whose livelihood is dependent on [horse racing]," he said. "Yes, we're all suffering, yes there are tough choices, there are big sacrifices and it's a difficult period.

"There are thousands of people out there who have no idea about this and it doesn't look good when they allow one sport, actually one league, to go ahead and tell the horse-racing people nothing."

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