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Time to look for the bright side

Ryan Stieg

This has not been an easy year on any of us.

It seems like when it comes to sports, that fact became even more obvious.

Playoffs, tournaments and even entire seasons have been canceled, which is something I didn’t think would happen in my lifetime. Sure, bad things happen, but usually when it happens, it’s limited to one team or school, not an entire conference or sport.

COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, though. It not only literally kills people, but also in a figurative sense as it dashes the hopes and dreams of players, coaches and fans.

Sadly though, it doesn’t look like we’ll get any relief from it anytime soon, at least until everybody in this country takes it seriously and does what they can to stop it.

If there’s anything good that has come out of this pandemic, I feel like it’s gotten us to appreciate sports a little more. Little did any of us know that when we were watching the Kansas City Chiefs rally to defeat the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV in February it would be the last major team championship we’d see for months.

The NCAA Final Fours and Frozen Fours were canceled in March, as was Major League Baseball’s spring training. MLB eventually postponed their season until the summer and it seemed at that point most of us realized this virus wasn’t going away.

I think we started to appreciate sports around mid-April when the ESPN documentary “The Last Dance” premiered. There was a lot of well deserved hype around the production and it would have had a big audience regardless of the pandemic, but we were so starved for anything sports-related that we were glued to our screens to watch a movie about the 1998 Chicago Bulls.

It wasn’t live action, but it was an escape, and for anybody born before 1990, it was a nostalgic look at a different era in basketball.

An era where a team would allow a player to leave and go on a 48-hour bender in Las Vegas during the middle of the season. Ah, the 1990s were a simpler time.

During the summer, things got wacky. The other three major sports leagues decided they’d try to hold playoffs and each went about it in its own way.

The NBA and WNBA decided to go the bubble route, where they isolated the competing teams in two cities in Florida, the former at Disney World and the latter at IMG Academy in Bradenton with virtual fans in the stands. Both were quite successful and showed that maybe it would be possible to play sports again, albeit in odd conditions.

Meanwhile, the NHL did the same thing, only it left this country. Pro hockey had bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton before playing the last two rounds in the latter. There were no fans and the atmosphere was terrible, but that didn’t take away from the fun of watching hockey again. Nor did it take away the image of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team from Florida, beating the Dallas Stars, a team from Texas, in an empty rink in Canada. Even weirder, it made commissioner Gary Bettman look competent, which was previously thought as an unachievable feat.

Then there was baseball, which looked incompetent early on, but managed to put together a decent regular season with teams playing within their regions, then an entertaining postseason at bubbles in California and Texas. We got to see the Houston Astros get eliminated eventually, which was a beautiful moment after sign-stealing-gate, and the Dodgers end a 32-year title drought.

Then in the postgame celebration, the Dodgers reminded us of the dangers of the pandemic as COVID-positive Justin Turner went back on the field during the celebration after being pulled from the lineup and took off his mask for a period of time. Just 10 days later, the franchise had five positive cases within the organization. Even if Turner wasn’t the one who infected them, it was still a sign that we have to stay vigilant if we want sports to continue.

Things worked great for the pros, but colleges and high schools weren’t so lucky. Northern Michigan and Michigan Tech universities lost their football seasons, basketball seasons were pushed back to January and NMU hockey lost its first eight games of the season to COVID-19 issues. The high school football and volleyball postseasons have also ground to a halt, and although it looks like football will potentially resume in January and volleyball around that same time, there’s no guarantee. It’s heartbreaking to watch and even think

about, and hopefully, it will all get back to how it used to be in 2019.

For now, though, we should be grateful for what we have when it comes to sports. I know I have. When I eventually got back to work from being furloughed, my first event to cover was a high school girls tennis meet and I couldn’t wait to be there. It wasn’t the Upper Peninsula Finals or anything huge, but it was a sporting event and it was fun.

Last week, NMU finally opened its hockey season and even though the arena had zero fans and the atmosphere was slightly above crickets chirping in your backyard, it was fun. The hits were hard, the saves were nice and a couple of the goals were pretty. It made me happy to be sitting there tweeting out stats, trying to come up with a clever lead to the story and trying to conduct a postgame interview on Zoom. It wasn’t how it used to be, but it was a reminder that maybe it will be next year if everything goes well.

As Christmas passes and the debacle that is 2020 comes to an end, let’s do what we can to get things back to normal. Mask up, social distance and be willing to think of others. If we all do that, 2021 will be easier on all of us.

Especially when it comes to sports.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.

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