MLSE's Tanenbaum focused on COVID-19 research, expects NHL hub city decision this week

Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment chair Larry Tanenbaum's business, philanthropy and sports worlds are colliding as he navigates the pandemic. He says his days are focused around COVID-19, how to return to sports in a safe way and how to advance the research going into a vaccine.

MLSE chair to donate $1 million toward coronavirus testing, finding vaccination

Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment chair Larry Tanenbaum, seen above in a file photo from 2015. Tanenbaum detailed his commitment to advancing COVID-19 research, also adding he believes the NHL will make its hub city selections this week. (Marta Iwanek/The Canadian Press)

Philanthropist and Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment chairman Larry Tanenbaum, alongside his wife Judy, are donating $1 million to fuel COVID-19 research at Sinai Health's Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute (LTRI) located in Toronto.

And Larry wants to see that number grow to $2 million.

"Anyone who wants to invest in COVID-19 research, for every dollar they give, Judy and I will match it up to $1 million. Hopefully we can raise $2 million," he said.

Tanenbaum's business, philanthropy and sports worlds are colliding as he navigates the pandemic. He says his days are filled with conference calls and Zoom meetings, all focused around COVID-19, how to return to sports in a safe way and how to advance the research going into testing and finding a vaccine.

"Sports needs science in trying to find the answers, whether that's a vaccine or testing. Whatever it is, the questions are still out there. Our focus is how do you conquer this COVID-19 virus," Tanenbaum said.

The LTRI ranks in the top one per cent of global academic institutions in molecular and cell biology. A number of the researchers there are on the front lines of discovering how best to identify and treat COVID-19, including looking at how the virus spreads and exploring new drug therapies.

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Tanenbaum wants to make sure their research continues and knows how important funding is in making sure that happens.

"The need is there. Unfortunately, what is happening is funding for so many of these research institutes in Canada, they don't get direct government support," Tanenbaum told CBC Sports.

"They rely on funding competitions and private donations. The funding competitions have been either cut or cancelled for much of the research. There's a real gap on stable funding."

Tanenbaum is especially optimistic about research being done by Jeff Wrana, a senior investigator at LTRI. Wrana is using a robotics lab to develop a mass scale COVID-19 blood test.

"He can test up to 10,000 samples at once through this robotic technology. The key to this thing is testing," Tanenbaum said.

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Tanenbaum says he wants to help researchers and doctors stay on the leaning edge of dealing with COVID-19 because there are still so many unknowns.

"It's frightening. The virus has not changed. Our behaviours have changed though," he said.

He's also trying to do his part to support the people on the front line.

In April, MLSE turned Scotiabank Arena into a massive kitchen. Tanenbaum says they're averaging about 13,000 meals per day. As of last Friday, more than 300,000 meals had been made for front line workers.

"I'm so proud of our people for doing this. They've gone above and beyond. They've mobilized from different departments to work on the food line.

What does it mean for sports?

All of this is happening in the backdrop of a number of leagues planning to make their return to play.

Tanenbaum says he's confident the bubbles set up in Florida for both Major League Soccer and the NBA, where Toronto FC and the Raptors will play, will work despite cases spiking in the state.

"The determining factor in playing is that ability to hold the bubble," he said. "We're all sort of playing it on a day-to-day basis."

While many leagues have already determined what locations they'll play in, the NHL has yet to announce its two hub city locations.

Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment chair Larry Tanenbaum, left, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman enter the Westin Times Square Hotel in 2012. Tanenbaum believes the league will choose its hub city locations "within the next 48 hours." (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Tanenbaum says he supports the NHL playing out of two Canadian locations – and is hopeful Toronto is one of them.

"We should hear within the next 48 hours. I'm keeping my fingers and toes crossed. It's the most logical thing to do but unfortunately I am not in charge of that decision," Tanenbaum said.

While getting back to fields and arenas is important to Tanenbaum, keeping his family, staff, players and coaching personnel safe continues to be the priority amidst the pandemic.

"Quite honestly, if it's Auston Matthews or your parents or co-workers or my children or grandchildren, we're all part of the same team that needs to fight against COVID-19," Tanenbaum said.

Combating racism

He's trying to help lead the fight against racism too.

Tanenbaum says it's "in my DNA to combat discrimination" or any type of inequality. He was part of a Toronto Raptors video at the beginning of June, promising concrete action to address racism.

"Social justice is a huge part of my being," he said.

"I work in the Indigenous communities. These are people who are discriminated against. There's racial bias. Their level of health care and education is substandard, well below what should be acceptable in our country."

Tanenbaum says there are a number of initiatives he'll continue to support and be involved with, including Right to Play, a program that empowers children through sport.

"We've always been in front of building a socially just society here," Tanenbaum said.


Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

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