COMMENTARY: Could ‘hockey-crazy’ British Columbia and its premier get the NHL back on ice?

Sports-starved Canadians from coast to coast are longing for the return of televised hockey as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on.

But it’s doubtful any part of the country is pressing harder for the games to begin again than British Columbia.

B.C. Premier John Horgan, a major sports geek who keeps a lacrosse stick by his desk, spoke this week to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in a bid to get players back on the ice.

“We had a wide-ranging discussion about our desire in British Columbia to support the NHL and the Vancouver Canucks,” said Horgan, who also reached out to the NHLPA, the players’ union.

The proposal: designate Vancouver as an NHL “hub city” and host made-for-TV games with no fans in the stands.

Horgan said he told Bettman about the province’s success in driving down transmission rates of the virus, making B.C. an ideal place to host televised games with strict health protocols in place.

“Mr. Bettman and his team recognized that British Columbia has had a pretty positive response to COVID-19,” Horgan said.

“It would be great for B.C. and it would be great for the NHL.”

Bettman, meanwhile, seems determined to start playing again.

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Cancelling the remainder of the disrupted NHL season “is not something I’m even contemplating,” Bettman told a virtual town hall hosted by the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday, the same day he spoke to Horgan.

“If we do things right, I think we’ll be able to finish the season,” he said, adding cancelling the season and not awarding the Stanley Cup this year would be “too easy.”

All of which sounds great. But it’s easier said than done.

For one thing, international visitors to Canada are currently required to quarantine themselves for 14 days, though Horgan suggested the rules could be relaxed.

“Where we are in two weeks, three weeks or four weeks is up to Dr. Henry and how she feels,” Horgan said, referring to Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer.

But the good news for fans is Henry has revealed herself to be a hockey fan, too. And the province’s health minister, Adrian Dix, is also a sports nut.

Horgan revealed he has tasked Lisa Beare, his minister of sports and tourism, to work directly on the NHL file.

Put it all together and you have a provincial government that seems gung-ho for hockey.

Other NHL cities, including in Canada, are also making bids to host televised games.

But Horgan said B.C. could offer facilities in Vancouver and other communities that have empty minor-league rinks, including Victoria, Kelowna, Kamloops and Prince George.

He said the province would even entertain the idea of “perhaps having all of the games played in British Columbia.”

All of the games played in B.C.? When Horgan said this, I assumed he meant games played by the eight teams in the Pacific Division, which includes the Canucks.

But an official in Horgan’s office later confirmed the province could host the entire league schedule within its borders, which is an astonishing thought.

Is any of this even remotely possible? In theory, yes, but it presents huge logistical challenges.

Players, coaches, officials, TV crews and other personnel would have to be sequestered in hotels to prevent spread of the virus.

Everyone would have to be tested and re-tested to detect any COVID-19 flare-ups, which could prove controversial if limited public health assets are surrendered for the use of millionaire professional athletes while the rest of the public suffers.

But I think Horgan and his government see an opportunity to deliver a badly needed morale boost to a beleaguered nation if he can help get the national sport back on the ice and on TV.

I also suspect there a good dose of politics in the mix. Horgan leads a minority NDP government in the B.C. legislature and he faces an election next year.

If he can be seen as the guy who helped bring back the NHL, it probably won’t hurt him at the ballot box, especially if the Canucks enjoy any playoff success.

I’d say the chances of it happening are pretty good. Bettman seems motivated. There are millions of dollars in TV revenue on offer. And Horgan is clearly a willing dance partner.

“This is a hockey-crazy province,” he said.

He’s not wrong. British Columbia could end up playing a crucial role in saving the NHL season.

Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.

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