Canada’s speed skaters point to NHL bubble success in search for new training hub


Ever the realist, Heather McLean flew home to Canada from the Netherlands in early March and quarantined herself for 14 days, even though it was not yet a requirement to do so.

After witnessing the spikes of COVID-19 first-hand in Europe, McLean realized the gravity of the situation and accepted she might not race again until the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

So, while she wants to compete this year – perhaps in the “hub” that the International Skating Union is exploring in the Netherlands —  the Winnipeg product is ready to roll with the unexpected.

Such is life in the midst of a global pandemic.

“I trust the ISU and our federation in Canada will take all the safety precautions and make the best decisions for us,” says McLean, one of this country’s top sprinters. “So, if they do decide to go through with it, I’m definitely all for it. I trust that it’ll be safe for us, and we’ll take the least amount of risk as possible. 

“The Netherlands is a great place to train and to visit. They have good facilities. They’re very kind to us there.”

In the Netherlands, the passion for speed skating rivals that of hockey in Canada. Dutch children grow up dreaming of becoming the next Sven Kramer or Ireen Wust as they race in skating ovals dotted throughout the country.

Speed skating is definitely more of a fringe sport in this country. In fact, the home of Canada’s long-track speed skaters  – Calgary’s Olympic Oval – experienced a mechanical failure earlier this month, leaving the team without a place to train.

‘We’re very much in limbo’

The lack of ice is yet another twist in a year of turmoil with the first four World Cups of the season already cancelled.

“It just seems to be one step back after another,” says distance specialist Isabelle Weidemann, of Ottawa. “So we’re very much in limbo right now.”

Weidemann and teammate Gilmore Junio take comfort in watching the Stanley Cup playoffs up the highway from Calgary in the Edmonton hub. 

As of Sunday, the NHL has not reported a single positive COVID-19 test from Edmonton or Toronto, which hosted the early post-season rounds for the Eastern Conference.

“We wouldn’t be getting the indoor golf ranges and stuff like that,” says Junio, who has friends in the NHL bubble. “It’s five weeks of being in the bubble and staying at our hotel. “Thank goodness we have FaceTime and the internet to keep ourselves occupied  — and video games.”

Weidemann, for one, doesn’t mind the isolation if it means she gets to compete.

“I understand that the logistical factors are quite ridiculous,” she says. “But racing is a large reason why I get up and train every morning.”

‘I’m ready to accept the challenge if it comes’

Based in Montreal,  Antoine Gelinas-Beaulieu also loves to race. But he’s worried about flying across the Atlantic Ocean with the number of COVID-19 cases rising around the world.

“The situation could get a lot worse, and we could be stuck and have no control over that,” says Gelinas-Beaulieu, who won bronze last season in the mass start at the World Single Distance Championships. “I think it would be very hard, psychologically, to be away for two months—very isolating. If it’s something that comes up, we would have to adapt and perform. It wouldn’t be the first time a big challenge has come up, and I’m ready to accept the challenge if it comes.”

While the Canadians are in search of a suitable long-track training venue, athletes from other countries are skating daily in preparation for international events that may or may not happen.

But McLean sees no reason why Canada can’t compete at the highest level in the proposed Netherlands hub.

“I don’t think the ice [at Calgary’s Olympic oval] being out for six weeks or two months is going to affect our performance come February if you have the right mindset,” she says. “It would be really cool to place really well at the world championships, to win a medal, and to say: `These are the challenges I faced and I overcame them. And I stood on the podium.”

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