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Power play? Pols push for Chicago to serve as ‘hub city’ for NHL return from coronavirus shutdown

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and state Rep. Mike Zalewski say the city would be the perfect host as the league eyes a return to action after three months.

Adam Boqvist of the Chicago Blackhawks advances the puck against the New Jersey Devils at the United Center in December.
Adam Boqvist of the Chicago Blackhawks advances the puck against the New Jersey Devils at the United Center in December.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Illinois isn’t out of the coronavirus penalty box just yet, but Chicago should be on the first line if and when professional hockey returns to action.

That’s according to the state’s top sports betting legislator, who on Tuesday joined cheers led by Mayor Lori Lightfoot for Chicago to serve as an NHL “hub city” as the league aims to resume its season three months after the coronavirus pandemic iced sports around the world.

State Rep. Mike Zalewski pointed to Illinois’ improving COVID-19 case numbers, which have steadily declined from an apparent peak in mid-May. The state has seen the largest fall-off in cases over the last two weeks of any other state in the nation, according to a Fortune magazine analysis, while others with looser reopening regulations have seen spikes.

“Our state has shown it has the leadership, health care infrastructure, sports arena capacity and necessary precautions and cooperation to ensure athletes stay safe while bringing back the sports we love and miss so much,” the Riverside Democrat said.

But Cook County still has the most confirmed cases of COVID-19 of any county in the nation with more than 85,000, according to a Johns Hopkins University analysis.

“We’ve done well with our hospitalization numbers, so it seems to me we have the health care bandwidth to manage if there were cases involving players or teams,” Zalewski said.

Noting the potential boon to a city hotel and restaurant industry decimated by the shutdown, Zalewski echoed points made by Lightfoot, who said she was “hopeful” Chicago would be picked as a hub city during a weekend interview with The Athletic.

State Rep. Michael J. Zalewski chats with a supporter during the public opening of BetRivers Sportsbook, the first brick-and-mortar sportsbook approved by the Illinois Gaming Board, at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines in March.
State Rep. Michael J. Zalewski chats with a supporter during the public opening of BetRivers Sportsbook, the first brick-and-mortar sportsbook approved by the Illinois Gaming Board, at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines in March.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

“Although I expect the playoffs to be probably fan-less, we’re still very well situated to accommodate the league and the players,” Lightfoot told the sports news website. “We have plenty of hotel space and got a great culture life here. I think everything they would want to put on with a best-in-class playoff experience is here in Chicago.”

July 10 has been targeted as a starting date for training camp, with Chicago one of ten cities in the running to serve as one of the two hub cities hosting a 24-team NHL playoff. But there’s still no official confirmation yet the puck will drop, as the league still has to hammer out an agreement with the NHL Players’ Association.

If it does drop, though, it’ll likely happen as the state’s new legal sports betting industry is finally up and running. Casinos shuttered by the pandemic are expected to launch mobile betting any day now with Illinois Gaming Board approval, and some playoff action wouldn’t hurt the handle, said Zalewski, the chief architect of Illinois’ sports betting law.

“It’ll generate activity,” he said.

Zalewski said he talked with the governor’s office about his goal for Chicago to be a host city and they “didn’t have any objection.”

The governor’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. At a May 27 news briefing, Pritzker said leagues had presented “good plans” to get back in the game.

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