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COMMENTARY: Professional athletes should wait their turn for vaccines, just like everyone else

Click to play video 'Coronavirus: Trudeau says NHL purchase of COVID-19 vaccines won’t impact Canadians' Coronavirus: Trudeau says NHL purchase of COVID-19 vaccines won’t impact Canadians
WATCH: (Dec. 11, 2020) Asked about news that the NHL is considering purchasing COVID-19 vaccines for its players, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said such purchases by private organizations would not “impact or slow down the delivery of vaccines” to Canadians – Dec 11, 2020

When speculation erupted last week that the National Hockey League might try to buy up precious COVID-19 vaccines for their players, the biggest shock wasn’t that a professional sports league would even consider such brazen queue-jumping.

In the case of the NHL, the bigger shock was the possibility that professional hockey might try pulling such a stunt again. 

Flash back to 2009, when the H1N1 flu strain was spreading around the world.

While vulnerable seniors waited to get an H1N1 flu shot, news broke that the Calgary Flames had somehow secured their own private vaccination clinic for team players and staff.

Red-faced Alberta health officials admitted 150 Calgary Flames hockey players, family members and staff received the scarce vaccine, while requests for H1N1 flu-shot clinics at nursing homes had been turned down.

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Read more: Toronto Raptors say 3 members of organization tested positive for coronavirus

The affair sparked outrage and a public inquiry.

“I, quite frankly, was incredulous,” Lori Anderson, then vice-president of Alberta Health Services, told the inquiry.

“I couldn’t believe this could have happened.”

But happen it did, all while desperate Calgarians, waiting at four “mass distribution” vaccine clinics, were screaming, fighting and fainting in line.

In the end, the province’s senior medical health officer apologized for the affair, while the Calgary Flames suffered a well-deserved public-relations black eye.

You’d think the incident would have been a teaching moment for the National Hockey League.

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But there was the stunning news report last week that the league was considering privately buying up enough vaccine for its 750 players in advance of a looming hockey season.

After another public backlash, the league offered some tepid damage control, saying the NHL was not interested in jumping the queue, and only wanted to buy vaccine “if it’s available for private purchase.”

Too late! The damage had been done. Again.

Professional athletes and multi-billion-dollar sports leagues are pampered enough in North America.

But the thought of privately hoarding doses of vaccine while the rest of the world suffers and waits is a new level of selfish elitism.

Happily, the head of Pfizer Canada quickly made it plain that its vaccine is only for sale to governments, and not to private corporations, including the National Hockey League.

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“Right now, we are fully committed and built our global supply plan based upon the contracts that we’ve signed with governments, and so we’re really deferring to the governments to figure out what the best way is to allocate their product,” Pfizer Canada CEO Cole Pinnow told Global News.

“We absolutely would love to respond to all the individual inquiries we’ve received, but we really feel that government is in the best position to determine an equitable distribution among its population.”

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Asked specifically about the NHL’s reported desire for a private vaccine purchase, Pinnow would only say: “I appreciate the interest.”

Good for him! However, Pfizer is not the only pharmaceutical company developing COVID-19 vaccines. It just happens to own the only one that’s approved so far.

Other vaccines will be approved in the weeks and months to come, creating more opportunities for the NHL and other professional sports leagues to make private purchases.

But if these sports leagues are smart, they will wait their turn like everyone else.

Professional athletes are young, healthy and in supreme physical condition, making them among the least vulnerable to the virus.

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Better for them to stay in their protective bubbles while they play their games and make their millions.

Let the nursing-home residents and front-line health-care workers go first.

Then, when it comes time for professional athletes to get their shots, the public will appreciate their patience, and the good example they will set for others hesitant to take the vaccine.

But buying their way to the front of the line — as the Calgary Flames discovered to their embarrassment 11 years ago — is just asking for a heaping helping of public scorn.

Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at mike@cknw.com and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.