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Seattle’s Man on ‘Mars’

Don Graham, Vice President of Events at Climate Pledge Arena

Don Graham, Vice President of Events at Climate Pledge Arena

The NHL ‘bubbles’ didn’t require interplanetary travel, but keeping teams safe and well during the Stanley Cup Playoffs includes a big assist from Oak View Group and otherworldly compliance efforts from Climate Pledge Arena and Kraken executive Don Graham

By Bob Condor

When the NHL and NHL Players’ Association announced its plans via a Zoom video conference to stage a 24-team postseason in the hub cities of Toronto and Edmonton, NHLPA executive Mathieu Schneider said, “it’s like going to Mars, no one’s ever been there.”

Certainly, most every NHL player embarking on an unprecedented attempt to win a Stanley Cup had previously traveled to Toronto or Edmonton or both. But this summer it involved quarantining with teammates and team staff, getting tested for COVID-19 daily and staying inside a predetermined “bubble” area in each city to play games, practice, eat meals, sleep, work out, meet for strategy sessions, relax and communicate by phone, text and screens with loved ones not allowed to travel to the two hub cities as part of detailed and so far successful health and safety protocols implemented by the NHL.

When COVID-19 stopped everyday life as we knew it earlier this year, there were more questions than answers about how professional sports leagues and arenas would proceed. Enter Oak View Group, a major builder and operator of sports and entertainment facilities across North America and the globe, including Climate Pledge Arena here in Seattle. OVG applied the experience and ingenuity of CEO Tim Leiweke and an impressive group of colleagues and partners to address the daunting task of how to re-open arenas and stadiums when health authorities determine it will be safe for fans to attend games and concerts again.

“Our team will be influential in implementing the new standards that will be adopted across the entire live sports and entertainment industry,” said Leiweke earlier this summer. “The health and safety of fans, athletes, team personnel, artists and touring staff, during and after this evolving global pandemic, remains our top priority. By aligning ourselves with global companies, all of which I consider the best in their respective fields, we are developing and executing the necessary standards to protect anyone who may enter live sports and entertainment venues.”

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As part of OVG’s proactive stance, Peter Luukko, co-chairman of OVG’s Arena Alliance, worked directly with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and other league  executives to assist the league in developing a plan to stage the 2020 postseason while keeping safe all players, coaches, team staff, on-ice officials and a host of goods and services providers.  

“The NHL hired us to assist them in setting up the bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton and then work with them on compliance of protocols for sanitization, wellness and security,” Luukko said during an interview with the digital magazine VenuesNow. “Having been part of the NHL for so many years, we had been discussing with them early on through our OVG Arena Alliance and internal task force.”

Luukko, the Florida Panthers alternate governor and former president of Comcast-Spectacor overseeing the Philadelphia Flyers, is heading the OVG effort, along with site leaders Don Graham in Toronto and J.T. Klingenmeier in Edmonton. Graham is vice president of events for Climate Pledge Arena, home of the Kraken. Klingenmeier is senior director of business development for Prevent Advisors, a security consulting firm owned by OVG.

Graham will finish a run of 54 straight workdays in Toronto as the chief compliance officer when he departs the hub city Sunday following Saturday’s Game 7 between the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders (NBC, 4:30 p.m.). The Flyers tied the best-of-seven series at three games apiece with a dramatic double-overtime victory Thursday.

As chief compliance officer for the Toronto bubble, Graham was charged with a monumental task of keeping all comers safe and healthy. It started with arriving 10 days before eight teams with traveling parties of 52 touched down in Toronto. His work team included two additional compliance officers, a chief hygiene officer and a lead security director. Luukko was on hand to oversee the preparations in the time before teams arrived.

“The first couple weeks was about getting everything in order,” said Graham by phone this week while packing up surplus cleaning supplies and personal protection equipment (PPE) to be shipped back to NHL headquarters in New York. “We had a lot to set-up of PPE and sanitization supplies in the arena, practice facility and the soccer stadium that players use for outdoor workouts and recreation. Then we had to make sure all of the players’ rooms were supplied.”

Once players, coaches, general managers and other team personnel arrived, Graham says the compliance duties of his role kicked into high gear: He and his fellow compliance officers started each day at 6 a.m. to check in nurses who provided daily COVID-19 monitoring at the bubble’s two hotels and the arena. Like everyone in all of the NHL team parties, Graham and team were tested for COVID-19 each morning.

Next the three compliance officers divided up supervision work at the arena, practice facility and soccer stadium. “We wanted everybody to be comfortable but not too comfortable,” said Graham. “One example is the reserve players not dressed for games watched from a dedicated section in the stands. But we had to make sure they kept the proper social distance and wore their masks.”

Each day included meetings with designated compliance leaders from each team. Graham says the players, coaching staffs and team officials were highly cooperative: “They were into it, respecting the protocols. Players were taking quick showers or foregoing them until they got back to the hotel. The food they normally would eat in the dressing room, they would take it to go so the next team’s equipment managers could get in there quicker.”

NHL equipment managers are normally allowed access to a dressing room five to six hours before game and frequently the night before when playing road games in another NHL city. In Toronto and Edmonton, those equipment managers were sometimes afforded no more than three hours to haul in all of the gear, uniforms, equipment and all other items to service the players’ pre-, in- and post-game needs. The logistics for equipment managers were particularly complex on tripleheader days and multiple-overtime games, plus everyone had to be clear that every dressing room had to be fully sanitized by a dedicated cleaning crew before any new team could take over the space. Graham and his colleagues stayed at the arena late each night to verify all locker rooms and player benches were properly cleaned. That adds up to 18-hour days, seven days a week.

The diligence has paid off. Graham’s supervisory time will finish with a spotless record to date. The NHL announced last Monday it recorded zero positive COVID-19 tests among the 2,814 administered from Aug. 23 to 29, marking six straight weeks of daily testing with no positive results. By Sunday afternoon, a charter flight will take the Tampa Bay Lightning and the winner of Saturday’s Philly-NYI (the final game in the Toronto bubble) to Edmonton to begin the Eastern Conference Final in Edmonton.

The Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights will play Game 1 of the Western Conference Final in Edmonton Sunday (NBC, 5 p.m.) after both teams won Game 7s Friday Dallas survived in overtime to beat Colorado and Vegas broke open a scoreless game with a late third-period powerplay to end Vancouver’s run at the 2020 Stanley Cup.

Graham will be on the Sunday flight, hopping a ride to Edmonton before driving his way back to Seattle to continue his work with the Kraken and Climate Pledge Arena (he kept a regular schedule of meetings even during his time in Toronto). He said he is so looking forward to seeing his wife and two kids in person and not just on screens.

When asked if he feels a sense of accomplishing since arriving in mid-July, Graham replied with his usual modesty. “It will be a relief to have day off,” he admitted. “We were happy to do the job here, whatever it took. It’s been a team effort every day.”

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