Ontario government still hopes to keep Maple Leafs, Senators in Canada

Brian Burke on Hockey Central talks about why the Canadian division hasn't been locked in and that one province is proving to be challenging in getting a deal done.

Following a story from Sportsnet's Chris Johnston that the NHL is having to consider the possibility of moving its seven Canadian franchises to the United States for the upcoming season, the Ontario provincial government remains hopeful that doesn't have to happen.

“I had a good conversation with the Leafs and the Senators this morning,” Lisa MacLeod, Ontario’s minister of heritage, sport, tourism and culture, told the Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch. “I think the option that they would prefer is to have the Canadian division."

The bigger issue, MacLeod explained, is that the Ontario government is only one piece of this decision process. If the NHL were able to remain in Canada it would need to come to an agreement with each of the five provinces and all of the local municipalities on guidelines and rules for how it would work.

The NHL has preferred to have each team play out of its own home arena for a 56-game season and that a Canadian division would keep all travel domestic and avoid national border issues.

“In Ottawa and Toronto, we’re dealing with the local public health units, but at the same time, the chief medical health officer of Ontario," MacLeod said. "The same thing would happen with Calgary and the other provinces. The preference would be to have that division and we’re going to continue to work with them.

“If one Canadian city was unable to proceed then that would probably be a game-changer for an all-Canadian division. It’s important that we all understand where everybody else is at. That’s kind of an important conversation. For example, if six of the seven teams were in agreement, but the seventh wasn’t, that’s a concern for the league.”

MacLeod told Garrioch that she planned to speak with Steven Guilbault, the federal government's minister of heritage, to get a better understanding of what "other sport ministers and what other governments are looking at with their public health units."

If all seven Canadian teams and the NHL cannot come to an agreement with the local authorities on returning to play safely in the country this season, they may have to move south, as the NBA's Toronto Raptors and MLB's Toronto Blue Jays have had to do. That is not the preferred outcome, but all options are being considered as plans on a new season are waiting to be finalized. The NHL's target date to start that season remains Jan. 13.

“We’re going to continue the dialogue with them but, again, the health and safety of Ontarians is our No. 1 concern, especially with the second wave coming on very strong,” MacLeod said.

“Everybody can have a start date but most of this is out of our control given the spread of the virus. There’s so many issues that you contend with: The local health issues, the sanitation requirements, the protocols that are in place and the rapid testing required."

When the NHL finished its 2019-20 playoffs in the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles this summer, it did so without a single positive test. And while the government would prefer the league continue with that set up for next season, Johnston reported the league doesn't believe that to be a feasible option for a full schedule.

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