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The Capital One Arena, home of the Washington Capitals NHL hockey club, on March 12, 2020.The Associated Press

Eventually, someone was going to bring up the obvious next problem – now that there is a vaccine, people who aren’t high on the danger list will attempt to buy a spot at the front of the line.

What wasn’t so obvious was that the NHL would be the first person/organization to get curb-stomped over it.

Last week, Sportsnet’s John Shannon, quoting a “source,” tweeted that the league “is planning the private purchase of a COVID vaccine for all constituents involved in the upcoming NHL season.”

That went over about as well as you’d imagine. Outrage does not properly capture the response. In whatever social-panic stage of the pandemic we’re at now, the NHL was shaping up to be the next version of that guy back in March who complained to the New York Times that he was having trouble off-loading 18,000 bottles of hoarded hand sanitizer.

Ninety minutes later, Shannon issued a “clarification”: the NHL is “interested in securing vaccine when and if it’s available for private purchase … The league is adamant they would not jump the line to do so.”

Unless the theoretical NHL of the first tweet was planning on hijacking a shipment, I’m not clear on the distinction. However the league comes by it, any future wherein a bunch of 20- and 30-something professional athletes – the least at-risk group in society – get the vaccine before anyone else is line jumping.

So what about it? Is the NHL vaccine shopping right now?

“We would only look at the possibility of accessing vaccines in the context of the availability of excess capacity so as not to deprive health care workers, vulnerable populations and symptomatic individuals from access,” NHL VP of communications Gary Meagher said via e-mail on Sunday.

That sounds an awful lot like a ‘Yes’.

This story is a didn’t-bother-reading-past-the-headline rage-inducer of the highest order. It’s perfect.

So perfect that reporters immediately ran and tattled to Ottawa. Hey, hey, we don’t want to get anyone in trouble, but we just saw the NHL hanging around the Pfizer loading dock – where we know they aren’t supposed to be – waving around a wad of bills. They looked like hundreds. That’s not okay, right?

The answer they got may dismay the two-dozen or so Canadians who believe fairness always wins out in the end.

“We don’t have any mechanisms to block corporations from purchasing on a private contractual basis with corporations around the world,” federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said.

So as long as it can find a pharma company willing to take its money, the NHL or anyone else can buy all the vaccine they want.

None of this is surprising, nor is it worth blowing a collective gasket over. Why do you think you are likely to get the vaccine before someone in, say, Sierra Leone or Kazakhstan? Money. You live in a country with a lot of it to splash around. Others do not. It isn’t fair. It just is.

The NHL or anyone else is perfectly within its rights to buy a vaccine, should such an item become available on the open market. Even if it were inclined to get involved, there’s nothing practical Canada can do to stop it. This imaginary buyer would just go to some other, less scrupulous locale to get it.

As such, Hajdu was quite right to bat the issue aside. Engaging it makes an anxious public feel even moreso. However much fun it can be, this is not a good time to be whipping up class grievances. That’s how vaccine anxiety becomes vaccine riots.

Of course the NHL has discussed getting a vaccine. Why was that a surprise? Do you imagine there is a billion-dollar corporation anywhere that hasn’t?

But there is a difference between what you can do, what you ought to do and what you can get away with.

In short order, one story will completely dominate our news cycle: Who gets this thing and when? Which is another way of saying, ‘What about me? How much do I matter?’

Right now, we’re in the cautious, honeymoon phase. No one is going to be out there arguing that the elderly should be denied first kick. Or medical staff. Or the very ill and at-risk. But once you get past those cohorts, this has the potential to turn into a food-fight. It only takes one bun thrown in anger to light off the whole room.

In this PR cage match to come, sports leagues are well positioned to sell selfishness as altruism. We’ve already heard suggestions that famous athletes should be at the front of the vaccine line, in order to promote uptake in skeptical sections of the public. And if one of them is going to do it, I suppose everyone in the NBA must. And if the fourth assistant coach on the Sacramento Kings doesn’t exactly exercise the same social heft as LeBron James, well, that’s just how it goes.

You could see a dozen ways any league might sell an in-house vaccine drive as a charitable endeavour: ‘Tuesday night’s Sharks-Predators game is Vaccine Night at the SAP Center, brought to you by the NHL and XYZHealthCorp. The first 1,000 children and their parents through the gate get the Moderna shot (and, y’know, so do we).’

It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of timing. The trick is calibrating this so that a) you’re not first and b) you don’t come off like war-time profiteers.

Is this wrong? Of course it is. Is there any perfectly fair way to do this? Of course there isn’t. The vaccine dispersal was always going to be unfair on some level. What we’re trying to determine is precisely how unfair.

Were I in charge of a sports league, what I would also be considering is the social reward that will go to any pre-eminent group who waits until the end to get its shots. There will be some amount of glory for those who volunteer to go last, who make that small sacrifice for the wider, far less wealthy community.

But glory doesn’t help you cover a hundred million dollars of payroll, so I’m not holding my breath.

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