Canadian NHL teams exploring hosting fans, but no plans as of yet

At least five of Canada’s NHL teams have talked with their provincial government about fans returning to their buildings before the current season ends, but one infectious disease expert thinks it makes more sense to wait until the fall.

Infectious disease expert says waiting until fall makes more sense amid rising cases

Vancouver Canucks fans cheer on their team during a pre-season game against the Calgary Flames on Sept. 16, 2019. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

At least five of Canada's NHL teams have talked with their provincial government about fans returning to their buildings before the current season ends, but one infectious disease expert thinks it makes more sense to wait until the fall.

The Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Montreal Canadiens and Winnipeg Jets all say they have explored the possibility of putting some fans back in the stands. Canadian teams have played in empty buildings since March 12, 2020, due to concerns about COVID-19.

"We have had preliminary conversations with local authorities about a plan to host some fans at Rogers Arena this year, however nothing is imminent," said a statement from Canucks Sports and Entertainment. "Any plans to welcome fans back this year will be with the approval and guidance of public health officials. We expect discussions to continue in the near future."

Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease physician for St. Joseph's Healthcare in Hamilton, Ont., pointed to rising COVID-19 cases in several provinces.

"I mean Montreal, Winnipeg, Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver are all not in great places," he said. "There is case growth in every single one of these cities. It's hard to justify putting a bunch of people in a single place."

Chagla said October may be a better time for fans to return as more people will have been vaccinated.

"I think you're getting closer to normal by the fall," he said.

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"It might not be like full 100 per cent but you probably could get half capacity, so that's a good thing."

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Edmonton served as one of the NHL's two playoff hub cities. Rogers Place was empty when it hosted the Stanley Cup final and the IIHF World Junior Championships.

"We believe we can host fans in Rogers Place and do it as safely as any venue in the world, based on our track record and expertise," Tim Shipton, senior vice-president of communications and government relations with the Oilers Entertainment Group, said in an email. "We will only move forward with the plan, in conjunction with Alberta Health, as they ultimately need to sign off on the plan."

A spokesman for the Flames said the team is also talking with the provincial government.

Rob Wozny, the Winnipeg Jet's vice-president of communications, said the team has ongoing discussions with the province.

"We have shared we have the ability, experience, and resources to open the arena ... when it is safe to do so, but no timeline has been discussed," he said in an email.

A spokesman for the Quebec government said talks have been held with the Canadiens.

A Toronto Maple Leafs spokesman deferred any questions about fans returning to the provincial government.

Dakota Brasier, press secretary to the minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, said "the province will continue to follow the advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, other health experts and local public health to determine when and if it is safe for measures to be lifted."

Chagla said even if fans are allowed back in buildings before the season ends May 8, the numbers will be limited because of social distancing concerns.

"You're probably looking at maybe 2,000 maximum," he said. "It's how much can you get reasonable distancing. As much as we say two metres, it probably needs to be a whole lot more than that considering all the interfaces between people."

Most American teams hosting fans

In the U.S., 18 of the 24 American-based teams have already welcomed a limited number of fans or plan to allow them this month. Numbers have ranged from three per cent to 30 per cent of capacity.

David Legg, a professor of sports management at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said the return of a limited number of fans presents a whole series of challenges for teams.

Clubs will face questions about safety protocols; how many staff to hire; the best way to offer food and beverage service; and who gets tickets and at what price.

"I hate to use the word unprecedented but that's exactly what it is," said Legg. "No one's got a model or pattern from which to follow.

"I think every team is guessing. Do you offer the tickets to past season-ticket holders ... or do you simply put it out to the highest bidder? How you price them becomes tricky because you really don't know what the demand is going to be."

There's also the risk of games being postponed. The Canadiens had four games postponed last week after two players were placed in COVID-19 protocol.

Enforcing mask rules, when people are cheering, eating and drinking, can cause problems.

"In some respects, I would think they might be better off just waiting until next fall again," Legg said.

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