By Rob Drinkwater, The Canadian Press
EDMONTON — As hockey fans gear up for a truncated season to begin next month, some in Canada’s two “hub cities” say the temptation to celebrate — and flout physical distancing guidelines — may prove too great.
“I can’t say no to a good time,” said Edmonton Oilers fan Jeet Jermana. “I’d be hard-pressed not to jump into a big party.”
On Friday, the NHL board of governors and NHL Players’ Association said they had ratified the return-to-play plan, paving the way for the league to resume its pandemic-hit season later this summer.
Toronto and Edmonton were also officially unveiled as hub cities where all games will be played, beginning Aug. 1. Training camps start Monday in the 24 cities with teams still in the running for the Stanley Cup, including six in Canada.
In 2017, when the Oilers nearly advanced to the Western Conference final, Jermana was among the thousands of fans who partied in Ford Hall at Rogers Place arena and in bars along the popular Whyte Avenue district.
But with COVID-19 this year, where teams will play in empty arenas, Jermana said he’ll likely watch more games at home, maybe with just a few friends.
That is, he said, until the Oilers advance and he and other fans won’t be able to resist going out.
“Once it becomes the ‘real playoffs’ I think more and more the momentum will grab,” he said.
Matt Black of Hotel X Toronto, located west of the city centre where multiple media outlets have reported that several teams will be based, said the prospect of any accommodation for celebratory fan gatherings, even outdoors, seems unlikely.
Nevertheless, Black said he expects citywide excitement will be palpable, even with empty arenas.
“You look back to those scenes of Jurassic Park and Maple Leaf Square and all of that … it would be great for people to be able to get together again but you just need to make sure that you’re doing it in a safe manner,” said Black.
The players themselves aren’t to have any contact with the general public.
Dr. Vinita Dubey, Toronto’s associate medical health officer, said in an emailed statement that players and staff arriving from abroad will also have to serve a modified 14-day quarantine as well as undergo rigorous screening and daily testing protocols, wear masks in indoor settings, physically distance and wash hands often.
An Edmonton police spokesperson said the service wouldn’t be able to comment over the weekend on what sorts of preparations they might make for crowds when the season resumes.
Geoff Grimble with the City of Edmonton said the city’s civic events management team would likely discuss the issue during a scheduled meeting on Monday.
“The City of Edmonton’s first priority is public safety and we’ll continue to follow the advice and requirements of the Chief Medical Officer of Health to ensure fans, players, coaches and staff remain healthy,” Grimble said.
Oilers fan Brendan McLeod admitted he may be lured to a street celebration when — not if — his team advances, but said he still wants to maintain physical distancing.
“We have to get through this together or else it’s not going to change,” said McLeod.
But Shadi Merhej, who said he enjoys both hockey and the Oilers, noted the sport doesn’t have quite as strong attraction for him in the summer.
“It’s daylight ’til 11 o’clock. You don’t want to spend half your day watching hockey,” Merhej explained.
“I’d rather go for a bike ride, or rollerblade or golf.”
—With files from Cassandra Szklarski in Toronto