TORONTO — The NHL has unveiled its plan.
The league and players’ association will attempt a 56-game regular season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic’s raging second wave, one set to include a Canadian hockey fan’s dream of every franchise from north of the 49th parallel battling it out in a one-time-only, bragging-rights-on-the-line national division.
The NHL and NHLPA intentionally left wiggle room with some of the wording in the weekend announcement — "(we) intend to be flexible and adaptable" — because of how quickly the coronavirus situation can change.
And there’s indeed still a long list of details that need hammering out, not the least of which being whether Canada’s seven teams will be allowed to play in their home arenas, either to start the season or at all.
For that to happen in the newly-created North Division, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets require health officials from the five provinces in question to sign off on any plan.
With the clock continuing to tick towards the league’s Jan. 13 puck drop, there was little clarity on the issue Monday.
In announcing a four-week lockdown set to run from Boxing Day through Jan. 23 in regions that include Toronto and Ottawa amid soaring COVID-19 numbers, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said talks continue on the topic of allowing the province’s NHL teams to host games at Scotiabank Arena and Canadian Tire Centre.
"That’s in front of the (advisory) health table right now," Ford said. "No decision has been made on that yet."
The NHL wants to play games in the home arenas of participating clubs, but is prepared to hold them in "neutral-site" venues if necessary. Canada’s seven teams have been grouped together because the country’s border remains closed to non-essential travel, while the league’s 24 U.S. franchises have also been placed into three realigned divisions.
Dr. Jazz Atwal, Manitoba’s acting deputy chief provincial public health officer, said officials have been going over the NHL’s proposal for safety protocols.
"We have had a plan that we’ve reviewed," he said. "There’s five provinces that are impacted by this. So we have met federally with some federal public health individuals as well and with some interprovincial public health individuals, and work is ongoing in relation to whether or not there is public health risk to the NHL coming back.
"And at this point, there is still ongoing work in relation to that."
Atwal added even if the plan gets approved, there won’t be any fans, even at a fraction of capacity, inside Bell MTS Place to watch the Jets any time soon.
"We’ll have to take sort of week by week, month to month," he said. "That’s something we have to address in the future. At this point, there’s no desire to open fans up to watching hockey games."
Health officials in both Alberta and British Columbia were scheduled to provide updates later Monday, while Quebec did not hold a briefing.
Sportsnet has reported B.C. is one of the province’s yet to sign off on the league’s plan to have games played in Vancouver.
The province said in a statement Sunday that provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry "continues to work with the NHL and the other provinces involved to find a safe solution for the return to league play. Discussions have been ongoing to ensure the proposal aligns with the restrictions in place across all provinces."
Infection rates are rising at an alarming rate across North America as the continent heads into what could be a long winter of the pandemic’s second wave.
The NHL managed to resume its coronavirus-impacted 2019-20 season this past summer by using tightly-controlled "bubbles" in both Edmonton and Toronto. The league said there were zero positive tests for COVID-19 over more than two months, but the setup wore on participants as players and coaches were sequestered in hotels and separated from family.
It doesn’t seem feasible, nor would there appear to be an appetite for, a similar setup with a new season that’s scheduled see the Stanley Cup awarded in mid-July.
-With files from Steve Lambert in Winnipeg.