We’re down to six months before the Kraken is supposed to start playing, and that means work aimed at pinpointing an exact reopening date for Climate Pledge Arena is well under way.
A high-ranking Kraken official said Monday the broader estimate is the former KeyArena reopening between the end of September and first two weeks of October and includes “a multiweek inspection process.” A team spokesperson on Wednesday then clarified the reopening will definitely be in October, but couldn’t yet specify exactly what part of the month.
Over the past decade, when not affected by labor stoppages or a pandemic, the NHL regular season has opened anywhere from Oct. 3-12. So, yes, the Kraken is cutting things close, but the NHL does have wiggle room.
The league has only said it wants to launch the 2021-22 campaign sometime in October. If it hears the arena won’t be ready until two weeks into October, it could begin later that month to guarantee the Kraken plays its debut game at home. It could also start the team on the road — not really anyone’s top choice — to buy additional weeks.
Given pandemic construction slowdowns, this isn’t the worst outcome.
Still, we don’t yet know what that NHL schedule will look like and whether the Kraken will be allowed to host full crowds. Yes, COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed, but there’s mounting concern about a new wave of infections — especially involving COVID variants — undoing the progress made.
And remember, it isn’t just about the U.S. With seven Canadian-based teams among the league’s soon-to-be 32, decisions north of the border have a direct impact.
And right now, the COVID-19 situation in Canada — both in general and for the NHL — does not look good.
On Wednesday, the Vancouver Canucks announced that 21 players — including three members of the team’s taxi squad — and four coaching staffers have tested positive for COVID-19 in an outbreak that first erupted last week. The team said a highly-contagious COVID variant is involved and further testing is being done to determine which one.
The outbreak is among the worst for any pro sports team since the pandemic began and the severity of some Canucks’ symptoms is raising alarm bells.
Various reports had some players being treated at home with IVs to counter dehydration. Some were in such bad shape they couldn’t get out of bed and their immediate family members, in some cases, had also contracted the coronavirus.
“Finally made it to the couch after two days,” one player told a Vancouver broadcast journalist.
This is clearly of great concern, given the relatively young age and superior conditioning of the athletes being affected this severely. Playing professional or college sports during a pandemic for primarily business considerations was always a risky prospect, but the ethics behind it have been largely shrugged off as infected athletes mostly suffered what appeared to be mild symptoms.
That isn’t quite the case here. You have to wonder what’s going through the minds of other NHL teams with upcoming games scheduled against the Canucks, especially in B.C.
That province last week halted indoor dining until April 19 and reportedly has the most P.1 variant cases of any place outside of Brazil.
For now, the league hopes the Canucks can finish their pandemic-shortened 56-game schedule but says its primary concern is player health and safety.
You’d also have to think the league is wary about what provincial health authorities in Canada do next. The NHL had to fight just to play games in empty Canadian arenas — unlike here in the U.S., where many teams are playing in front of crowds, even as COVID-19 infections rise — and the B.C. government was among the stingiest at insisting upon strict protocols.
The NHL last week sent teams a reminder not to relax COVID-19 precautions, like mask-wearing and not going to restaurants or playing cards.
The province of Ontario last week closed all indoor and outdoor dining as cases spiked, driven largely by variants. More shutdowns are likely coming amid growing calls for a province-wide stay-at-home order. Quebec has locked down eight municipalities until at least next week, closing nonessential businesses, in-class learning and imposing an 8 p.m. curfew.
Playoffs start May 11, and no one knows whether U.S.-based teams will be allowed to cross the border to play in Canada without being subjected to a mandatory 14-day quarantine. The vaccine rollout in Canada has been slower than in the U.S. and it’s expected to take until September before doses are given to everyone wanting them.
The Canadian federal government wouldn’t budge on exempting pro sports teams from border rules even back when its COVID numbers were dropping, which is why the NHL created four unique divisions for this season only with no cross-border regular-season games. The border quarantine was recently eased to seven days for U.S.-based players traded to Canadian teams by the upcoming April 12 deadline, but that’s just for a handful of people — not an entire squad.
Teams in the all-Canadian North Division will play only each other the first two playoff rounds. The league hasn’t said what will happen the final two rounds in June, but could impose more playoff “bubbles” like last fall or have the North Division winner go on the road permanently.
And that’s probably the best-case scenario.
The worst-case scenario, of course, in a pandemic that’s already killed nearly 560,000 people in this country and 2.86 million globally, would be an NHL player or immediate family member dying from COVID-19 because the league insisted on playing. If that ever happened, health authorities might take all future decisions out of NHL hands.
The worst case from a less-important scheduling perspective would be Canada keeping its border closed next season — again, that’s only six moths away — and forcing the league to maintain its current alignment. Remember, the U.S. is already backsliding on COVID-19 infections even as state governors keep allowing businesses and sports teams to reopen to patrons.
Another full-blown surge here might get arenas shuttered again and would be unlikely to convince Canada to reopen its border to Americans as it struggles to contain its own COVID problems. You’d also have to wonder whether NHL team owners would still play next October if forced to stick to this season’s altered scheduling arrangement. Some would undoubtedly prefer to wait until the border and arenas can fully reopen.
For now, let’s keep an eye on this Canucks situation.
Yes, it’s good news the Kraken should have its home arena ready to play the franchise’s first game if the NHL sticks to its plan for a traditional October opening.
But first, the league has to get its players through this current season with no long-term damage to their health.