Seismic Change: A year of bubbles, relocation and cancellation on the sports scene

·4 min read

The traditional wail of bagpipes had barely quieted at Kingston's Leon's Centre last March when the sports landscape underwent a seismic change.

One last blast of sporting Canadiana — the hoisting of the Brier Tankard — was followed days later by the shutdown of the NBA, NHL, baseball's pre-season and other leagues and competitions.

The grip of the COVID-19 pandemic quickly took hold. A normally bustling calendar was replaced by a huge void amid a wave of cancellations and postponements.

"It has to be one of the craziest sports years ever," said New York Post sports media columnist Andrew Marchand. "There was so much uncertainty all year."

Springtime events were pushed back, if they happened at all. Seasonal traditions in the sports world would have to wait.

So for a while, no hockey or basketball playoffs. No five-setters on the Roland Garros clay. No azaleas at Augusta.

And perhaps most notably on the schedule, no 2020 Olympics. The Games were rescheduled for this summer and Tokyo 2021 plans remain iffy.

As sports returned, social justice efforts and the fight against racism took centre stage. Some games were postponed as players, coaches and executives used sport as a platform to get the message out.

When play resumed, there were no packed houses or screaming crowds. Cardboard cutouts replaced spectators in some venues.

"I think sport means a lot to Canadians," said CBC sportscaster Scott Russell. "I think it's a huge part of our cultural narrative and when it stops, we really lose something. Conversely, when sport starts coming back — albeit mostly professional — it's important that it comes back and that's encouraging."

The NBA and NHL used so-called 'bubbles' to safely return to play. The Stanley Cup was presented in Edmonton last summer with no fans and no Oilers.

The usual hoopla from sold-out venues was hushed. Athlete banter could be heard and natural audio took over.

Skate blades seemed to carve the ice with increased ferocity. Fastballs sounded like they hit the catcher's mitt with more pop.

The new normal on the sports scene took some getting used to in live settings and on the tube.

"It does feel strange," said Sportsnet and ESPN sportscaster Dan Shulman. "The Masters in the fall and hockey in the summer. It's like having breakfast for dinner every day of the week."

Broadcasters experimented with fake crowd noise. Locker-room scrums became a thing of the past. Zoom calls were the norm for media availabilities.

With the border closed and many restrictions in place, several Canadian teams temporarily moved south.

All three Canadian Major League Soccer teams relocated for part of the season. The Toronto Blue Jays played home games in Buffalo, N.Y., while the Toronto Raptors are calling Tampa, Fla., home.

Some leagues simply couldn't make things work. U Sports cancelled national championships and the CFL scrapped its entire season.

Bubble setups remain a viable option for 2021. The ongoing world junior hockey championship is using a hub in Edmonton and curling will do the same for a two-month run in Calgary starting in February.

Montreal Canadiens associate coach Kirk Muller spent about a month in the Toronto NHL bubble.

"I think people realized how important sports are for people and how much it affects people's lives," he said. "Not only people that are involved in it but fans. Watching the Masters recently, watching Sunday football, the traditions, the Saturday night hockey games in Canada.

"These are things that people revolve their days and nights around."

TSN senior reporter Bob Weeks said in some ways, watching sports can "kind of numb the pain" of what Canadians have been going through.

"Cheering for your team. Cheering for the player," Weeks said. "Watching Brooke Henderson almost win a major or watching the Raptors go as far as they can in the playoffs.

"Those things to me really kind of showed what sports can deliver in the best of times and in the worst of times. And right now obviously these feel pretty much like the worst of times."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 29, 2020.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press