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The Blues Head North As NHL Resumes Pandemic-Stalled Season

St. Louis Blues huddle around the Stanley Cup during the banner raising ceremony. They hope to win a second consecutive Stanley Cup while playing in the NHL bubble in Edmonton.
Alex Heuer
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Blues huddle around the Stanley Cup during the banner- raising ceremony. They hope to win a second consecutive Stanley Cup while playing in the NHL bubble in Edmonton.

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.

Janssen played for the Blues from the 2007-2008 through the 2010-2011 seasons. He also played for the NHL's New Jersey Devils.
Wayne Pratt
St. Louis Public Radio
Cam Janssen played for the St. Louis Blues from 2007 through 2011.

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.

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Wayne is the morning newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.

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