- The National Hockey League and the NHL Players’ Association has a tentative deal for a 56 game season starting on January 13.
- A number of logistical details remain to be worked out including team venues.
- Due to national and provincial COVID-19 restrictions there is speculation that Canadian teams may need to play in the US.
Good news on Friday with the announcement that hockey is coming back in early 2021. NHL Deputy commissioner Bill Daly confirmed that the league and the players’ association have worked out a tentative agreement pending approval from executive boards for both sides.
The deal stipulates a 56 game season beginning on January 13. Training camps for the 7 non-playoff teams would begin on December 31 with the remaining teams beginning camps on January 3. There are no exhibition games expected–teams will go directly from training camp into regular season action according to Canada’s Sportsnet which first broke the story of a pending deal.
The NHLPA held a conference call on Friday night with reports suggesting that they approve of the plan–at least in general terms. They still need to put the detailed plan on paper and hold a formal vote of their ‘rank and file’. The NHL board of governors will hold a call to discuss the plan later this weekend or Monday at the latest.
PLENTY OF LOGISTICAL ISSUES NEED TO BE WORKED OUT
Here’s where it gets interesting–many of the logistical issues still need to be worked out, primarily dealing with where teams would play. The plan is for all teams to play inter-divisional opponents only with the league temporarily realigning to further facilitate easy travel. Here’s the proposed divisions from the Sportnet report:
Boston-Buffalo-New Jersey-NY Islanders-NY Rangers-Philadelphia-Pittsburgh-Washington
Anaheim-Arizona-Colorado-Minnesota-Los Angeles-Las Vegas-San Jose-St. Louis
At this point, there’s not much clarity as to whether teams will play in their home arenas or in ‘hub’ cities. The NHL used the quarantined ‘bubble’ concept last year with games in Edmonton and Toronto. That strategy met with a fair amount of success and the Tampa Bay Lightning were awarded the Stanley Cup in late September.
The most significant logistical issue is the status of the 7 Canadian teams. While the US based teams should be able to play in their home arenas (with a few exceptions such as the San Jose Sharks) and travel within the country the situation in Canada isn’t so clear. The league needs to get approval from health officials in the five Canadian provinces with teams (Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec, Alberta, Manitoba).
The hope is that an all-Canadian division will eliminate the necessity for cross border travel–these were a major reason that the Toronto Blue Jays played last season in Buffalo and that the Toronto Raptors will call Tampa home this season. Hockey, of course, is Canada’s national sport and the hope is that something can be arranged to keep games north of the border. The Public Health Agency of Canada has made clear that they won’t be granting special dispensations to make it happen:
“The resumption of sports events in Canada must be undertaken in adherence to Canada’s measures to mitigate the importation and spread of COVID-19. NHL teams and other professional sports must operate within the rules of their provincial jurisdictions for sports or sporting events.”
CANADIAN TEAMS COULD BE FORCED TO PLAY IN THE US
If the NHL can’t get permission from all five requisite provincial governments they’ll have to look for a ‘Plan B’. One scenario is that all 7 Canadian teams will play in the US instead, possibly in a ‘temporary home’ similar to the move the Raptors and Blue Jays had to make. Sportnet’s Chris Johnson reported that there has been some resistance from provincial health agencies:
However, that plan requires approval from health authorities in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia and it’s believed to have met some opposition. The government prefers the bubble setup the NHL used for its summer return-to-play in Edmonton and Toronto, according to sources, but the league doesn’t believe it’s feasible to recreate that for an entire season.
At a time when COVID-19 cases are rising across the country the provincial health authorities need to be comfortable with the NHL’s protocols, which are still being formulated and finalized with the NHL Players’ Association.
As you’d expect, the idea of all Canadian teams playing in the US has gone over like the proverbial ‘lead balloon’ with hockey fans north of the border. One recurring theme is that this is a ‘once in a lifetime’ chance for an all-Canadian division and that this should happen in Canada. Another is the sanctity of the game in the Canadian psyche–there was one suggestion that all of the US teams should be forced to play in Canada. That would essentially replicate the ‘bubble’ concept and it isn’t clear if that would make a difference in terms of health regulations.
Toronto’s Mitch Marner sounds like he’s cool with playing hockey wherever:
The most likely scenario should the Canadian teams be forced to play in the ‘lower 48’ is that the proposed divisional arrangements would be scrapped in favor of new ones. These would include the Canadian teams with the rest of the teams in the league–it would likely end up in four divisions again but not with one consisting exclusively of Canadian teams. The NHL has spoken with the Canadian teams about this contingency and further discussions with provincial health authorities and the Public Health Agency of Canada are scheduled.