Skip to main content

Edmonton Oilers forward Zach Hyman looks for a pass behind Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jack Campbell during the second period at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, on Jan. 5, 2022.John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

The current state of the NHL in Canada was nicely encapsulated by Wednesday night’s tribute to the Edmonton Oilers’ forward Zach Hyman.

It’s become a commonplace in sports that any vaguely liked figure who leaves a team must be feted like Caesar upon his return. I’m not exactly sure why Hyman should feel all weepy about the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team that figured he was worth less than half-a-Mitch-Marner, but he’s too nice a guy to say so.

During a break in play in the Leafs/Oilers game, the Scotiabank Arena broadcast a video tribute to Hyman. Because there was no one in the stands, this was a bit like a lone bugler playing Taps in a phone booth across the street from the graveyard.

Being a better sport than I’d probably be in his situation, Hyman raised himself slightly from the bench and saluted the emptiness for the benefit of the cameras.

This is where the Canadian branch office of the NHL has got to – going through the motions of big-league sports, minus everything that make sports big league.

Not so long ago, Wednesday’s encounter had the look of the great regular-season game of 2021-22. Instead, it featured two choppy teams coming off Decembers heavily disrupted by the Omicron outbreak. Toronto’s Auston Matthews was able to escape the COVID protocols, but Edmonton’s Connor McDavid was not. Neither team looked sharp, though Toronto was more of a butter knife while Edmonton was a bowling ball. The Leafs won. The Oilers lost.

Back in the summer of 2020, that sea of empty seats behind the players offered hope. It reminded us that we were trying to act normal despite limitations. Now it looks pathetic. What’s the point of spectator sports without spectators? If this is broadcast worthy, then why aren’t we looped into the team gym every morning to watch the guys do burpees? It’s the same principle.

Sports without people in the building is no longer valorous. It’s sad.

NHL players vent frustration over league’s decision barring them from participating in Beijing Olympics

There are no longer COVID-19 rules in sports, just official-sounding excuses

Saddest of all – all those absent fans who bought their tickets at wildly inflated prices months ago on the secondary market. There are a lot of unfortunate jobs to have in the pandemic era, but scalper must be close to the worst. Trailing close behind – the NHL’s scheduler.

Shortly before the evening of depressing hockey began, the league bumped three more Canadian home games to later in the season.

The schedule itself has yet to fully catch up with all this juggling. We know games will be played during what was supposed to have been the Olympic break, but we don’t know which ones or how many. The total number of disrupted games stands around 90 and keeps going up. All of the new disruptions involve Canadian teams.

On Monday, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told Toronto sports radio that mid-January was “about as far [as] we can go” in terms of putting off today what might be profited from tomorrow. In my world, mid-January is this weekend. And the postponements continue.

Unless the league has entered some sort of Vulcan mindmeld with five provincial premiers, there is no way for it to know when this ends or how. The premiers used to have some leverage in this matter. That’s long gone.

People will no longer buy that it is too dangerous for 25 people to get together at the local pizzeria, but it’s safe for 10,000 to spend four hours in the same big room watching hockey. As long as there are lockdowns, there will be strict attendance caps on sports. That reality has been baked into the Canadian approach to coronavirus.

There is one obvious way to solve the problem – a road trip that ends whenever this current scare does.

It is odd that it was taken as a given that Canada’s baseball and basketball teams would decamp for the United States, but it’s considered bizarre to ask hockey teams to do the same.

The circumstances aren’t identical – the Jays and Raptors left in the prevaccine world. But the same risks now prevail.

If we’re so worried about this thing that we can’t gather in each other’s homes, why are we inviting travelling groups of athletes – many of whom are in and out of the COVID protocols daily – to traipse around the country?

It’s not about health and safety (does anybody really believe half of this is any more?). It’s about messaging. If we’re going to be inconvenienced, it’d be nice to see our plutocrats facing the same irritations. We’re no longer buying the idea of special favours for special people. See under: Novak Djokovic.

So for the first time since this started, send this country’s NHL teams south in a wave. If you want to make up games, start making them up now. The first step would be completely abandoning two or three weeks of coming home dates in Canada.

We’re always going on about the “message” athletes are sending their communities. Half the modern live experience is taken up by honouring this or that person or cause. How about this sort of message from the clubs – the city we play in is currently catching it in the chin, so we’re going to take a financial bath to prove how we’re in it with you. See you on TV, friends.

At the very least, it would be interesting to watch the Leafs, Oilers, et al truly barnstorming through the States for a month or so (the “or so” being the problem).

Those two teams in particular, full of hyper-talented athletes, might find some more disruption useful. God knows playing with all the comforts of home hasn’t exactly worked out these past few seasons.

It seems unlikely this current wave won’t have crested by the playoffs, when home dates really do matter. But aside from money that may or may not already be lost, there’s no reason to continue playing in Canada’s desolate arenas right now. Send the NHL on its way so that we can welcome it back in better times.