Inside the NHL’s incredible effort to ensure the show goes on

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  Sportsnet

EDMONTON — One of the seldom referenced elements of about spending an adulthood around the National Hockey League is this: You come to learn that more than just sport, hockey is show business.

And in hockey, as in show business, the show must go on.

Come pandemic, come rain, come flood — all of which apply here in Edmonton — the players can’t even begin to play the NHL game until the people around the game do their jobs.

“This is … the most challenging endeavour any of us have ever been involved with,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said on Friday, referencing the 150 NHL league office employees on the ground, and “well over 1,000 people combined in each city working on every detail to make the hub what it needs to be.”

Even in a normal playoff season, the games you watch are like the siding on a house. Or the paint job on the high performance car.

Without the engineering of the structure underneath, they are merely a pile of aluminium or a puddle of paint.

They can’t happen without all the things that make major league sports what it is — a spectacle worthy of having the NHL shield affixed to it. And this endeavour? It’s above and beyond when it comes to the engineering part.

“To turn the lights on (after losing four months to the pandemic), it takes an incredible effort,” said Steve Mayer, chief content officer for the NHL, from inside Rogers Place. “Edmonton is now my home. I am in Day 10 of being an Edmontonian, on the way to Day 85. I love this place!”

On Friday, the powers that be across the NHL and Edmonton Oilers outlined the process of bringing hockey out of a pandemic and into the public. They spoke about creating “Secure Zones” in Toronto and Edmonton, where 52 members of 24 separate travelling parties — 31 players apiece — will arrive on Sunday, and then taking an empty arena and finding a way to both create some atmosphere and show well to the television audience.

All under the proviso that health and safety trumps everything.

Some 133 security and “health ambassadors” will roam the bubble and arena in Edmonton, ensuring that proper protocol is adhered to while helping players and staff navigate this maze of restrictions.

There are 14 open restaurants inside Edmonton’s bubble, with pop-ups and food trucks expected as well, from steak to vegan, tacos to Tim Hortons. Pool, ping pong, basketball, pickle ball, areas to play soccer and run…

Player meeting rooms. VIP areas for coaches and GMs. Each team gets a team suite and a player lounge, affixed with TVs, card tables, places to eat.

Inside the arenas, the game presentation unveiled on Friday is unlike anything a hockey fan has seen before, as a league with the financial might of the NHL has its widest tablet — 18,000-seat arenas devoid of fans.

That means several more cameras than fans are used to, in positions that are impossible to install when people are in attendance. Huge video screens hanging down to the lower bowl showing video components imported from the teams that are playing.

“Pump-up videos, goal horns, goals songs,” Mayer said. “Things that would be traditional in their arena.”

They’ll “lean towards” more content from the home team off the top of the tournament, but may yet play the goal song of the visiting team as well. “We’re going to bring these arena to life through the art of video, audio and lighting.”

As a homage to Canada, artist Michael Buble will sing the anthems on Opening Night in both Toronto and Edmonton, where last week’s flooding simply added to the to-do list of people like Oilers senior vice president of operations Stuart Ballantyne.

“We had a lot of water enter the facility — it’s never fun to have that level of water come in,” he said. “But we are now up and running. We will have unfinished drywall in the building in certain areas, but they are bruises and bandages of honour, to be honest, in terms of what we’ve had to accomplish since last Thursday.”

The League promised good ice, with the yoke of opening the doors to let 18,000 fans in — and the humidity that follows — lifted this summer. And to this point, knock wood, the 24 teams have navigated through Phase 3 without any major COVID-19 scares.

The house is built, the car engineered.

On Aug. 1, the fun starts.

We can’t wait.

In the immortal words of the great Northern Pikes: