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The Blues Head North As NHL Resumes Pandemic-Stalled Season

The St. Louis Blues resume defending their Stanley Cup championship today. They will be playing games in a bubble in Edmonton, Canada, as the National Hockey League tries to complete the season in the era of COVID-19.

While fans are excited for hockey to be back, there are concerns about player safety and whether hockey should be put on ice until after the pandemic.

The league has set up two hub cities where this year’s playoffs will be played. Both are north of the border — Edmonton and Toronto.

Canadian cities were likely chosen because they have a better handle on the outbreak than the U.S. does, said Emory University epidemiologist Zach Binney.

“We have more virus here, right now. We have done a poorer job of controlling it, and that makes it harder,” he said.

But running a big-time league in a bubble comes with complications.

“The major problem with the bubbles is that they require a lot of tests,” he said. “And they require a lot of tests that come back quickly — within 12 to 48 hours.”

Binney said that creates a moral dilemma. Many non-athletes have to wait up to 10 days to get their results back. Sports leagues claim their laboratory partners are not taking away testing capacity from the public in order to serve the teams.

“I don’t think that it’s that simple,” Binney said.“Even with a few thousand tests a day, that’s still a few thousand people who could have their results back faster, if sports weren’t back.”

Life in a Bubble

With health and safety on their minds, players are also adjusting to life in a bubble environment. “It’s not really flashy,” Blues forward Brayden Schenn told reporters shortly after arriving in Edmonton.“You got food, bed, hotel.”

The league tried to set up the bubbles to keep players and staff entertained while they are not playing or practicing.

The bubble in Edmonton includes four luxury hotels connected by a fencing system. There are 14 restaurants in that space, including pop-up eateries the NHL created that feature top local chefs.

League officials have also set up activity areas so players can swim, play pingpong or even go for a run.

As the players adjust to non-game life in the bubble, they will also have to get used to a big difference on the ice. They are playing in a rink without fans.

Wayne Pratt | St. Louis Public Radio / St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis-area native and former Blues player Cam Janssen doesn’t think empty stands will matter to the players once the games get going.

“They are not going to slow down or not get pumped up because there are no fans behind them.”

He added players have experience with mostly empty seats during training camp games and the time they spent in the minor leagues.

Janssen is excited the Blues are back but understands the health concerns players are facing even though they are in the Edmonton and Toronto bubbles.

“I don’t think these guys are worried. They are in the safest spot possible,” he said.

Janssen is surprised the NHL has been able to come this far, though there are still questions about whether the bubble plan will lead to a completed season. “I was even saying, 'Just let it go. Let’s start from scratch.’ But once they started putting things together and you can see it, you’re like, oh my God. OK,' he said.

The Blues open their bubble schedule today against Colorado. They hope to end the season in Edmonton, approximately 1,800 miles northwest of St. Louis, in late September or early October with another Stanley Cup.

Send questions and comments about this story to: feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Wayne Pratt | St. Louis Public Radio /

Copyright 2020 St. Louis Public Radio

Wayne Pratt is a veteran journalist who has made stops at radio stations, wire services and websites throughout North America. He comes to St. Louis Public Radio from Indianapolis, where he was assistant managing editor at Inside Indiana Business. Wayne also launched a local news operation at NPR member station WBAA in West Lafayette, Indiana, and spent time as a correspondent for a network of more than 800 stations. His career has included positions in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Toronto, Ontario and Phoenix, Arizona. Wayne grew up near Ottawa, Ontario and moved to the United States in the mid-90s on a dare. Soon after, he met his wife and has been in the U.S. ever since.