Five Thoughts for Friday: Return to Play

The 13th COVID-era editdion of FTFF

It’s Friday, which means it’s time for five thoughts. You know how this works at this point.

Hockey Diversity Alliance

NKB touched on this yesterday, but I want to give it a deeper look. Matt Dumba gave a recent interview talking more about the Hockey Diversity Alliance, an initiative by several non-white NHL players to make hockey (not just the NHL) a more welcoming place for persons of colour. It’s a great idea — you don’t have to look around hockey much to realize how non-diverse it is — but I can’t help but be cynical.

The NHL has a bit of a history of committing to inclusivity solely in word. You Can Play is a nice idea, but it’s hard to believe the NHL is truly embracing the LGBTQ+ community when a guy like Andrew Shaw is appointed the Canadiens’ ambassador. Shaw’s apology for using a homophobic slur was to say “that’s not the kind of guy I am”, which is never really an apology. Or the NHL’s attempts at embracing women’s hockey, by inviting players to the All-Star Game, but then having Pierre McGuire backhandedly say that nobody would want to lose to a woman in the fastest skater competition, and then Breanna Decker winning the passing challenge but not being eligible for prize money and not even being on TV in the US. Not to mention that Hockey Is For Everyone month is February, meaning the NHL feels like the best thing to do is to lump all diversity together, so the rest of the year can focus on being not diverse.

Even the interview rubbed me a bit the wrong way, because Dumba was immediately asked why P.K. Subban wasn’t on the initial announcement, as if it’s the job of every Black player to join every diversity-focused cause. When Bill Peters history of racial slurs was revealed, reporters immediately asked Oliver Kylington about his experiences with his coach. Never mind that a frequently healthy-scratched player doesn’t have the luxury of voicing criticism of the guy who decides if he plays or not, it shouldn’t always fall to the minority to address the problem. Until the NHL starts put a lot of the responsibility of inclusivity on the 97% of the NHL who haven’t faced discrimination, hockey isn’t actually going to become inclusive.

Return to Play

We now return to less heavy topics. The NHL, barring a severe unforeseen event (like a global pandemic?), will be returning to play in Toronto and Edmonton. I guess this should be seen as a win for Canada, because this will pump a decent amount of money into the hospitality industry of both cities. It’s also nice that the NHL decided to stay out of Nevada, where the daily COVID-19 infection rate is about triple that of all of Canada, somewhat caring about the families of players. Edmonton in particular has a gorgeous arena, and it’s nice for the players to get to play in such a great facility. And since they can’t go anywhere outside the bubble, who cares if it’s not the most exciting NHL city?

The thing is, the way people are saying this is a big deal for these cities seems funny to me. There’s going to be no tourism money brought in. The government has already had to bend its rules about preventing non-essential travel to let these players in, and I won’t be surprised when we start hearing about team personnel breaking the bubble and then being very apologetic afterwards on camera. This whole return to play reeks of trying to salvage money from a lost season, and I really hope it doesn’t completely derail. I haven’t gotten super excited because a) the Senators aren’t going to be involved, b) the Maple Leafs (deservedly) and Canadiens (really undeservedly) have shots at having good playoffs, and most importantly, c) I can’t help but think there will be a major outbreak and at least one of the hubs will get shut down for weeks.

Opting Out

The Return to Play plan contains an option for players to opt out of returning without facing penalties, financial or otherwise. However, I can’t see this as a real option. The NHL is a league where players who play through serious risks are celebrated, be it Patrice Bergeron with a collapsed lung, cracked rib, and separated shoulder; Gregory Campbell risking serious damage to his leg while continuing to kill a penalty on a broken fibula; or Rich Peverley wanting to continue to play after his heart stopped beating on the bench. We know that Kaapo Kakko (Type I diabetes, celiac disease) and Max Domi (Type I diabetes) are planning to play. Despite many NHL coaches being old enough to be considered at-risk, all are expected to return with their teams. Remember, this is a league where Dougie Hamilton has been traded twice for being into things like museums that are unusual for NHL players. Outside of an “excuse” like Oskar Lindblom’s (he just finished cancer treatments), can you imagine an NHL player feeling unsafe to return to work, while being confident it won’t affect his future career?

Olympic Hockey

One other thing that’s come out of the return to play is an agreement that players will return to the Olympics in 2022 and 2026. I’m mostly on board with this, partly because I think owners tend to be slimy people who accumulated massive amounts of wealth by being at least a little unethical, and anything that pisses off the super wealthy brings me a little joy. Yes, players make a lot of money, but none make near enough to buy a hockey team. I get why the owners don’t want to risk them going (remember John Tavares breaking his leg in Sochi while he was third in NHL scoring, sinking the Islanders’ playoff chances?), but I think this should be up the players. I think players tend to make poor decisions about safety like not wearing helmets, not wearing visors, not wearing Kevlar socks, etc., but Olympic hockey isn’t more dangerous than NHL hockey. If anything, the wider rinks and higher level of skill lessens the risk of injury. If players want to go, the owners who insist on trying to squeeze every last dime out of their employees should be forced to let them.

I’ll also let you in on a little secret here. Last Olympics, I wasn’t really cheering for Canada. For one, their games were super boring. Also, the team featured guys like Drew Doughty and Corey Perry that I detested, and a guy like P.K. Subban only got into a handful of games despite being the reigning Norris winner. Instead, I found myself cheering for Sweden, hoping to see Erik Karlsson taken seriously as the best defenseman of a generation by having a wider audience on an international scale. In the 2022 Olympics, I’m really not sure who I’d cheer for yet, because I’m not sure I see any Sens players making rosters. Maybe Thomas Chabot will make Team Canada and make my decision an easy one.

The Hope/Realism Balance

Colin had a great piece yesterday about the weird feelings of being a Sens fan right now, and I think reflecting on it is a good way to end these five thoughts. Hope is always hard, because unmet hopes can provide severe disappointments. Opening yourself up to feeling anything positive is a good way to open yourself up to pain. Getting attached to guys like Erik Karlsson and Mark Stone set us up to be hurt when they were traded, and led to us half-joking that Chabot and Brady Tkachuk were going to be great until they got traded in their primes. I think our tendencies as humans are to avoid pain, because we’d rather live without hope than risk feeling pain. (The loss-averse nature of humans has also been observed in monkeys, suggesting that it’s a well-engrained behaviour.)

I would challenge you to push against your hesitancy, and hope to enjoy a successful Ottawa Senators future. For one, sports is meaningless. If you’re disappointed in how the hockey team fairs, it won’t ruin your marriage, your health, or your bank account. ottawabob put it eloquently yesterday: “It [sports] is one thing we have where it’s good to just hope and expect and then be thrilled or disappointed.”

I tend to be very cynical by nature. I joke that my life motto is, “underpromise and overdeliver” so as to make sure people are rarely disappointed by often pleasantly surprised. But I also believe that entertainment is way more fun if you let yourself enjoy it fully. Let’s try to believe these Sens will turn out to be even better than that early-to-mid-2000s powerhouse team. The worst thing that happens is we’re wrong. Hoping for the best and getting something that’s not quite there still sounds better to me than expecting the worst so that if it unravels you’ll be able to say, “I told you so.”

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