NHL games at Maple Leaf Gardens again?
Now that would be one of the only good things that could come out of the COVID-19 pandemic that has locked so much down including professional sports. But as governments wrestle with reopening plans, basketball, hockey, baseball and football are kicking the tires.
Stuff is happening behind the scenes — including the idea of Toronto being one of the hubs for the NHL to start playing again.
While Mayor John Tory has not commented, on Monday he told CP24 he had been talking with NBA champion Toronto Raptors’ president Masai Ujiri about the idea of opening up their OVO Athletic Centre practice facility on the CNE grounds.
“We are seeing if we can work something out and we will try our best to do that, obviously, but there is many precautions that need to be taken into account and many details that have to be sorted out,” Tory told CP24.
Even though kids can’t shoot baskets at the park or play on playgrounds, reopening sports, businesses, restaurants, malls, public spaces and schools are vital to the country’s morale. For hockey it could be more than just practising. The potential of Toronto being a neutral site location for the NHL to reboot has fans and league insiders excited.
“They are talking about it and they should,” said one NHL insider. “But none of it is going to happen without the go-ahead given by governments.”
Some governments are moving fast. Some are more cautious.
Toronto Councilllor Mark Grimes says his NHL sources are telling him “these are very high level discussions at this time. I believe we’re months away, possibly the fall, from seeing NHL hockey in any North American city.”
Still, seeing NHL games played in Toronto in venues with no fans in the stands would be welcomed by TV viewers thirsting for action. Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area has everything the NHL would need — NHL and television-ready arenas, and plenty of accommodation for players and team staff.
There’s obviously the Scotiabank Arena, Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre at Maple Leaf Gardens, and the Coca-Cola Coliseum on the CNE grounds. All are within walking distance to hotels to house players sequestered in between games.
And the whole GTA is rich with pro-ready hockey arenas. Mississauga has the Paramount Fine Foods Centre, Brampton has the CAA Centre. Oshawa has the Tribute Communities Centre, Barrie has the Sadlon Arena and Oakville has three NHL-sized ice pads at the Sixteen Mile Sports Complex.
“We would be really excited to accommodate if the NHL wanted to look at new locations,” Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown said Wednesday. “It’s the perfect location. We are adjacent to Pearson airport and have numerous hotel options.”
Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie said while she has not talked with the “NHL or MLSE about using the Paramount Fine Foods Centre as a venue for a modified NHL,” she would be pleased “to speak about this if they asked.” Both mayors said everything would be contingent on public safety.
Forward thinking is needed right now as people seek something positive to look forward to. Sports on TV would be welcome.
“We’re looking at all options,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said last week on NHL.com.
While he said “nothing has been ruled in” or “out,” neutral site games with “seven or eight” teams “could be anywhere that isn’t a hot spot and has what we need both in terms of the arena and having practice facilities.”
Before the puck could ever be dropped, in addition to both the league and the NHLPA agreeing, all players, coaches and team officials would have to be tested for COVID-19 and be quarantined to avoid spread. All it would take is for one player to come down with the virus and all plans could be scuttled.
But the negative possibilities should not trump the positive things that could happen too. There’s nothing wrong with having discussions to be ready should opportunity knock. Few would complain about the Stanley Cup being presented in August or September if that’s what it takes to see the season saved.
MLSE has declined comment but Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan told TSN last week “If we’re going to do this it’s going to be in a hockey market … where the infrastructure for putting on hockey (games) is available.”
Toronto and the GTA are perfect for this.