As the NHL continues to work through discussions with five different provincial health authorities about its plans to stage the upcoming season, a fallback option looms in the background.
The possibility of playing entirely in the United States.
Sources say that’s the likely outcome if agreements can’t be reached to make the Canadian Division a reality for 2020-21.
While there’s nothing concrete to indicate that the necessary government bodies won’t eventually sign off on the NHL’s plans, that had yet to happen as of Thursday night.
The NHL would prefer to have each of its seven Canadian teams based out of its own city and arena for a 56-game regular season. Play would be entirely within the realigned division, travel would be exclusively domestic and national border issues wouldn’t come into play.
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.
Should that fail to happen, the NHL is willing to have the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens play games out of the U.S., if necessary -- although it’s not clear exactly where each would be relocated.
Senior NHL executives held a conference call with the Canadian teams on Thursday afternoon and discussed the possibility of moving south of the border. It also indicated that future talks are expected with provincial health authorities and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
A 31-team league based entirely in the States would essentially kill the Canadian Division before it ever officially got life and it would require a different realignment plan than the one the NHL and NHLPA have been formulating this month.
It would also follow a precedent set by other pro sports leagues.
The Toronto Blue Jays were forced to play their Major League Baseball season out of Buffalo over the summer and the NBA’s Toronto Raptors have temporarily relocated to Tampa after failing to get the necessary government clearance to remain at home.
It had been thought the NHL stood a better chance of securing that clearance because all of the travel would be kept inside the country. Players would be tested regularly and contact tracing would be performed immediately after any positive result.
The NHL had been aiming for a mid-January start to its season, but that timeline is now being challenged by the sheer number of outstanding logistical issues. The league is also running up against government restrictions in some areas of the U.S., with the San Jose Sharks being forced to plan a training camp in Scottsdale, Ariz., because of new health regulations in Santa Clara County.
The Public Health Agency of Canada doesn’t have any formal jurisdiction over the NHL’s plans for the upcoming season, but has been part of coordinating discussions with the provinces.
On Thursday, spokesman André Gagnon told Sportsnet that the league must satisfy provincial criteria to move ahead with a season here in 2021: “The Government of Canada’s priority is to protect the health and safety of Canadians. 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 teams must operate within the rules of their provincial jurisdictions for sports or sporting events.”
He then deferred any specific questions about the NHL’s plans to the league itself.