Chicago as an NHL playoffs hub? Evaluating the city’s chance to host hockey this summer

Chicago is one of 10 cities the league announced Tuesday it’s considering to host the 2020 playoffs, and the city does have a lot of positives — but one huge negative.

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The United Center could conceivably, though improbably, host hockey again this summer.

The United Center could conceivably, though improbably, host hockey again this summer.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The idea that Chicago could be chosen as an NHL playoffs host site this summer is, on the surface, absurd.

The coronavirus pandemic is the sole reason why the postseason will be held in two hub cities, as the league officially announced Tuesday, rather than in the 16 (or, this year, 24) home arenas of the playoff teams. Cook County, meanwhile, has the most documented coronavirus cases of any county in the nation.

But Chicago — competing with Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver for the “hub” titles — also has virtually everything else the league is looking for in its hub city search.

The primary categories in which the NHL will evaluate its candidate cities are COVID-19 case totals, testing availability, governmental cooperation, quantity of NHL-caliber hockey facilities and hotel-room availability.

One huge positive: Illinois officials have processed more than 800,000 COVID-19 tests so far, including 17,179 on Wednesday alone. The state ranks 10th in coronavirus tests per capita.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly repeatedly emphasized Tuesday the importance of testing to the league’s resumption plan. Once games begin, every player and team employee will be tested every night — a routine that will require 25,000 to 30,000 tests, Bettman estimated.

“Medical advisers tell us that, by the time we’re doing this over the summer, that will be a relatively insignificant number of tests relative to the number of tests that will be available,” Bettman said.

That likely would be true in Chicago, at least.

The city obviously is flush with hockey facilities and hotels, too.

The United Center is one of the league’s largest arenas and contains not only two NHL locker rooms but also two NBA locker rooms and several auxiliary rooms.

Plus, the 920,000 pounds of Greater Chicago Food Depository food crates that filled the playing surface in March have since been distributed, a GCFD spokesman confirmed Wednesday, so the arena now sits vacant.

Fifth Third Arena, Johnny’s IceHouse East and Johnny’s IceHouse West are all nearby, providing plenty of additional NHL-standard locker rooms and rinks.

In terms of hotels, Chicago boasts about 47,000 rooms in the downtown area — far more than would be needed to house the roughly 600 people that 12 playoff teams would bring.

And most intriguingly, the NHL also has found a cooperative government. Gov J.B. Pritzker, despite his strict regulations throughout the pandemic, responded favorably Wednesday to a question about the host city possibility.

“I can’t answer what the timing will be or when the Blackhawks will be at it again, but we’re working with every league,” Pritzker said, adding that the leagues have presented “good plans.”

“I am as anxious as many people are to get our sports up and running again.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot echoed that sentiment in a statement to the Sun-Times.

“We are in close contact with all major sports leagues,including the NHL, as they continue to explore plans to safely resume games in the coming months,” Lightfoot said.

Chicago’s central geographic location, major airport, many hospitals and countless restaurants will also work in its favor.

Nonetheless, the pandemic’s rampant presence throughout the area poses a colossal roadblock to the NHL. Many of the other potential hub cities have suffered only a small fraction of Illinois’ 114,000 cases and 5,000 deaths.

“If we go to a place that has less COVID-19 in the community, the likelihood of somebody — who has been tested through a training period, through training camp and now is centralized — [contracting it is lower],” Bettman said. “The more we can sort of create a bubble, the less likely we’ll have it.”

Even if Chicago makes sense logistically, the political reception to the NHL — which is already being criticized by some for its urgency — choosing one of the nation’s biggest hot spots could be vitriolic.

And the players and coaches who will be stationed in the hub city for weeks or months might have some qualms about that, too.

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