Upcoming NHL season promises to be different, difficult and memorable

Elliotte Friedman joins Eric Thomas to discuss the official agreement between the NHL and NHLPA on a 56-game season, as well as the latest on where the Canadian teams will play.

They are bringing together the Group of Seven, as we’re calling them, and they’ll collide so often it should produce a masterpiece.

That the NHL officially launched its 2020-21 season with some unknowns on Sunday shouldn’t dampen enthusiasm for the historic nature of what’s on tap.

We’re talking about 10 installments of the Battle of Alberta inside a 116-day window and at least nine games between every other Canadian outfit. That means the next four months hold the equivalent of four typical years worth of McDavid/Matthews, Pettersson/Price and Tkachuk/Tkachuk.

We the North (Division)!

The league and its players are approaching this unpredictable COVID-19 campaign preaching flexibility and adaptability. It’s not yet clear if every Canadian club will be allowed to play games at home -- health authorities in British Columbia raised the most forceful concerns during a weekend conference call, according to sources, while Ontario and Quebec have also yet to commit formally -- but the NHL is going to find a way to play safely one way or another.

It could involve moving the Vancouver Canucks to another city, if necessary, not unlike how the San Jose Sharks are being shifted to Scottsdale, Ariz., for training camp -- and perhaps longer -- because of a ban on contact sports in Santa Clara County.

It could even come to involve neutral site hubs on either side of the border, depending on the spread of the virus and accompanying directives from health authorities.

The underlying point is that this season is going ahead with a focus on solutions rather than problems. The NHL is preparing to enact significant measures to protect its players and public health, including designating one hotel in each city where road teams can stay and requiring players and staff not to go anywhere but the hotel or arena.

Testing will be done at least every other day, and potentially every day, with isolation and contact tracing an important feature accompanying any positive results.

Despite the challenges, this is a time of great excitement.

Keeping the play entirely inside each realigned division for 56 regular-season games and through the second round of the playoffs is being done to limit travel and make things more manageable.

In a one-off scenario, it’s awfully enticing.

The anticipation for an all-Canadian Division speaks for itself, but don’t look past a new Central featuring three of the NHL’s top teams: Colorado, St. Louis and Vegas. Or how about a division where only four of Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington, the Islanders, the Rangers, New Jersey or Buffalo can qualify for the playoffs?

Everything is going to happen quickly now.

While there is still work left to be done with the provincial health authorities, there seems to be an underlying confidence about where things are headed with the Canadian teams. The sense is each of the seven teams should be permitted to host training camp out of its own city, pending federal approval, with camps set to open Dec. 31 in Ottawa and Jan. 3 in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver.

The conversation around hosting games is ongoing, but provincial governments in Alberta and Manitoba are already believed to be comfortable with NHL protocols. And Quebec premier Francois Legault tweeted “Bonne nouvelle!” -- good news -- after Sunday’s announcement from the league.

Yes, the clouds are parting after some concern just days earlier about where discussions were headed in Canada.

This will not be an easy season, just as it has not been an easy year. The deal ratified Sunday gives players the ability to opt-out of participating and includes the creation of taxi squads of up to six men that will provide additional insurance in case of outbreaks.

Every team must carry three goalies minimum for the entirety of the season and it’s not to guard against a David Ayres-like situation.

This is the next step towards getting back to normal. The NHL is hoping to return to a familiar routine for 2021-22 with a season-opening in October. But it must first find its way through whatever lies ahead, starting with a schedule release in the next few days that needs to be written in pencil.

Certainty is a relative concept and changes are going to be necessary, starting immediately with the Sharks. They can’t say for certain when they might be allowed to return to SAP Center for games or where they’ll play in the meantime.

“I wish any one of us on this call had the crystal ball for that answer,” general manager Doug Wilson said Sunday night.

This NHL season promises to be different, difficult and downright memorable.

And it’s still going to be a lot of fun.

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