As if 2020 hasn’t featured enough heartache and turmoil, a report surfaced online Wednesday morning that the Edmonton Oilers are considering moving the Bakersfield Condors to Canada.
But before anyone crafting a picket sign or burns a jersey in protest, there doesn’t appear to be any concrete plans in place to move the team, and it’s definitely too soon to panic.
And even if the Condors did move, they would likely return once the COVID-19 pandemic situation improves, right? It’s simply conjecture, first outlined as item No. 30 of NHL insider Elliotte Friedman’s “31 Thoughts” column for Sportsnet.com.
Speculation or not, the mere thought of losing the Condors is enough to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
And I’m sure I’m not alone. Losing the Condors, who routinely attract between 3,000 and 7,000 fans to Mechanics Bank Arena on any given night, would be devastating to the city, a city like most, that is in desperate need of some good news these days.
And what about the annual Teddy-Bear Toss? I don’t even want to think about it.
Once a proud sports city boasting four professional teams, Bakersfield has already suffered through the loss of three minor league organizations during a 10-year stretch. The Bakersfield Blaze, the latest in a long list of teams affiliated with Major League Baseball for nearly 75 years, left Sam Lynn Ballpark in 2016. That same year, the NBA G-League’s Bakersfield Jam moved to Phoenix. Arena football left town in 2007 when the Bakersfield Blitz AF2 team folded.
Are the Condors the next to go? Team president Matt Riley isn’t ready to rule it out, but he is also quick to point out there’s several ideas being kicked around and it’s simply too early to know what the future holds.
“I think some people are making a mountain out of a molehill,” Riley said. “It’s just one of 800 different scenarios that are kind of being thrown up against the wall. I mean obviously (these are) uncharted times, right? And nobody’s really been through this before.”
The biggest obstacle to keep the Condors in Bakersfield centers around the restrictions to cross the Canadian border. The entrance has been closed to non-essential travel since mid-March, with a 7-month agreement between the U.S. and Canada set to expire on Wednesday.
But Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau told a Winnipeg radio station this week that to protect Canadians’ safety, the border will not open anytime soon.
“We have committed to keeping Canadians safe and we keep extending the border closures because the States is not in a place where we would feel comfortable reopening those borders,” said Trudeau in the radio interview. “We see the cases in the United States and elsewhere around the world, and we need to continue to keep these border controls in place.”
Keeping the border closed presents some real problems for the Oilers — and the Condors. As the primary feeder for Edmonton, the American Hockey League prospects playing in Bakersfield need to be accessible to the NHL team at a moment’s notice. If the border remains closed, that would be difficult if even possible. The problem also affects two other Canadian NHL teams with AHL affiliates in the U.S. — Calgary (Stockton) and Vancouver (Utica, N.Y.).
“With the Canadian border being essentially closed with that quarantine, that does throw a wrench into (it) when you have teams in separate countries like we do, and like the National Hockey League does,” Riley said. “So, you know that can’t last forever. I mean it’s gotta end at some point. When that ends … I don’t know if anybody knows at this point. But we’re preparing to play here in Bakersfield in early 2021.”
Moving the team from Bakersfield is obviously not the only possible solution. Another option suggested on social media is allowing the Oilers, Canucks and Flames to keep larger rosters. During that scenario, the Condors could stay in Bakersfield, but that solution would severely diminish the talent pool from Bakersfield, Stockton and Utica, making it difficult for them to compete against the other 28 AHL teams with NHL prospects on their rosters.
In either case, given a choice, the assumption is most local fans would rather watch a less-talented Condors squad, than no team at all.
No matter what transpires, Riley said he’s prepared for whatever comes his way.
“There’s a lot of different moving parts and a lot of different opinions on who should do what,” Riley said. “We’re going to prepare for a schedule in early 2021. That’s our focus. If for some reason we have to pivot because of something totally out of our control, I guess in this case a border situation, then we make that pivot at that time.”
But the prospect of losing the Condors is not something Riley is overly concerned about.
“Even if that was something that happened it would obviously be just a temporary thing until things are back to ‘normal,’” Riley said. “But again, I don’t think anyone can put a percentage on it or odds on it or whatever. It’s just one of those, ‘Hey, what’s every possible scenario? How can we make a season happen? How can we make it happen for everybody?’ And again, this is one of 800 different things that I think people are looking at. To what level of seriousness? I don’t know.”