The pros and cons for Canadian cities interested in being hubs for fan-free NHL games


As the NHL looks for ways to salvage its regular season that was suspended by the COVID-19 pandemic, one option on the table is for a select group of so-called hub cities to host all the games.

However, without fans in the stands, the benefit of being one of the hubs will probably be more promotional than financial.

Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto are among the Canadian cities that have shown an interest in possibly playing this role. According to a report in The Athletic, between 11 and 14 teams have submitted proposals to the NHL to serve as hubs.

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Under this scenario, players would be housed in hotels in the hub city and travel back and forth to the arena. Games would be played without fans in attendance.

Ian O'Donnell, executive director of Edmonton's Downtown Business Association, called the proposed plan "an interesting model."

"Does it mean that we're going to have an electric environment with amazing excitement and city buzz and a huge amount of economic impact in the downtown core?" said O'Donnell. "I would say that it would be tempered. But certainly, it would bring a spotlight onto Edmonton."

Ian Tostenson, president and CEO of the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association, said not having fans in the arena means people won't be stopping for food and drinks before or after the game.

"There might be a little bit of bar action, but it all depends on where we are with the reopening of restaurants," he said.

"Without any spectators, I would imagine that the sort of consumer incremental effect would be quite minimized. Where it could be good is in the continuation of people ordering food in and doing delivery, but it's not going to do a lot, I don't think, for the downtown core."

NHL teams might spend "a swatch of money" on hotels but "those room occupancies are a fraction of what the hotels should be doing at this time of year," said Tostenson.

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Criteria for becoming hub city

The NHL was forced to pause its season on March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There were 189 total games left in the regular season when the league halted play.

Colin Campbell, the NHL's senior executive vice-president and director of hockey operations, told Sportsnet that interested cities would have to meet several criteria.

The city would have to be in an area with a low rate of COVID-19 cases. There would have to be an NHL arena ready for TV broadcasting that has four dressing rooms inside. The hotels would also have to be adequate for the players' needs.

B.C. Premier John Horgan said he has written to the NHL and the players union to offer the province as a venue.

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"Assuming that the games would be played without audiences, but instead would be played for television," Horgan said at a Wednesday briefing.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney spoke to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman about Alberta hosting games but said he has not seen a formal proposal.

Morale boost

O'Donnell said his association has been working with the Oilers and the provincial government about Edmonton becoming a hub city.

"There would be obviously a lot of media here, who might be able to do some other stories... and talk about our city," he said.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he's been in touch with the Toronto Maple Leafs' parent company about the city serving as a host city.

Laurel Walzak, an assistant professor at the RTA School of Media at Ryerson University in Toronto, said hosting games would be a morale boost for the city.

"I would say this is more of an awareness and marketing campaign versus it being about pure economics," she said. "It gives the city an opportunity to demonstrate what the city or province is doing during this time period and that they are capable and able to manage the situation."

Some health officials have said restrictions on social gatherings and the need for physical distancing could remain for months.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press
Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

David Legg, a professor of sports management at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said enforcing physical distancing rules could be difficult when it comes to fans celebrating.

"If restaurants are opening at 50 per cent, how is it all being policed?" he said. "If the Oilers are playing the Flames on a Saturday night and people are wanting to walk up and down Jasper Ave., how are they going to police staying two metres away from one another?"

Walzak said the league, players and broadcasters will have a responsibility to remind fans to follow local guidelines.

"The players and broadcasters can have influence over the fan base to let them know, 'Please continue to be safe.'"

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