For the NHL, fancy stickhandling will be required to stage a regular season in 2021

In a brief statement early last week, the National Hockey League and its players announced their intention to get back on the ice for a regular season as soon as New Year’s Day.

After staging a three-month Stanley Cup playoff tournament during which no player contracted COVID-19, the league has demonstrated its ability to operate safely inside a bubble, at least in a Canadian city.

It’s far less clear how the league will stage a full or abbreviated 2021 season during a pandemic that shows little signs of letting up on either side of the Canada-U.S. border.

Thirty-one NHL teams play in two countries with vastly different public-health regimes, not to mention five separate Canadian provinces, 17 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

In the U.S., where there are widely differing standards between states in the COVID-19 response, it’s possible some NHL teams would be allowed to resume play in January with fans in the stands.

In Canada, that is extremely unlikely. There is almost no prospect public health authorities in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta or B.C. would allow thousands of fans into arenas in as little as two-and-a-half months.

At the moment, three of these provinces are enforcing heavier pandemic restrictions on their largest cities, thanks to a surge in COVID-19 infections.

Even if those spikes are brought under control, it won’t matter: Public health officials have signalled mass gatherings are still going to be forbidden across Canada, at least until a vaccine or effective treatment for the disease is developed.

Fans in the stands unlikely, especially in Canada

This creates the prospect of some or all of the teams in the NHL playing without fans in the stands early next year. The financial implications would be considerable, especially in cities like Winnipeg, where the Jets are presumed to rely on ticket and concession sales for a significant proportion of their revenue.

In some U.S. NHL cities, where hockey is less of a religion, the cost associated with failing to play for a season could be perceived as even greater. Less-devoted fans may simply drift away from the game.

The risk of losing fans for good makes even a money-losing 2021 season a more appealing option for the likes of the Florida Panthers or Carolina Hurricanes than it would be to small-market Canadian teams, like the Jets or Ottawa Senators.

This is academic, since the NHL has stated its intention to move forward. True North Sports and Entertainment, which owns and operates the Winnipeg Jets, is not entertaining questions about the financial consequences.

“Given all that we don’t know at this point, it would be pure speculation to suggest what next season might look like and how we might operate within it,” True North vice-president Rob Wozny said in a statement.

Indeed, there are a lot of logistics to work out before the league resumes play during a pandemic winter.

Double trouble: borders, bubbles

The safest way the league could resume play in January is within another set of bubbles.

That too seems unlikely, given that it would restrict the movement of players — and potentially keep them away from their families — for a lot longer than the three months the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning were inside playoff bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto.

Perhaps the National Hockey League Players’ Association will choose to go along with longer bubbles. If they don’t, the league faces the prospect of an unbalanced schedule in 2021.

Simply put, it does not seem likely Canada will allow 24 U.S. teams to fly in and out of seven Canadian cities.

In July, when the Toronto Blue Jays sought permission to allow American Major League Baseball teams to come and go, Citizenship and Immigration Canada said no. The Blue Jays were forced to play home games in Buffalo.

Since then, the pandemic has worsened on both sides of the border. 

When asked about the prospect of allowing American NHL teams to visit in January, Citizenship and Immigration passed the puck over to Health Canada. 

It, in turn, would not commit to the idea.

“The resumption of sports events in Canada must be undertaken in adherence to Canada’s plan to mitigate the importation and spread of COVID-19,” Health Canada said in a statement.

“The government is open to reviewing further proposals from the National Hockey League (NHL) that includes a comprehensive public health plan agreed to by the government of Canada and obtaining written support from provincial or territorial public health officials.”

The all-Canadian option

If U.S. NHL teams cannot fly in and out of Canada, there is an elegant way the league can resume play without a bubble.

For one season only, the NHL could place all seven Canadian teams within a single, north-of-the-border division. This would prevent the need for American teams to travel to Canada — or Canadian teams to visit the U.S. — until new playoff bubbles are put together later in the season.

This could prevent the need for regular-season bubbles on both sides of the border, even if it would not protect the players and league staff from COVID-19 as effectively as a bubble.

The novelty of an all-Canadian circuit could also prove to be a TV ratings windfall for Sportsnet and other Canadian TV broadcast rights-holders, such as TSN.

That said, imagine how annoyed Jets captain Blake Wheeler and Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk would be with each other after they face off 10 times over the course of four or five months. 

Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler and Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk foght during a qualifying-round game in Edmonton. An all-Canadian circuit could solve the NHL’s transborder problems next season – but create enmity between teams that see a lot of each other. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

This arrangement would still be subject to approvals by public health authorities in five Canadian province, but that does not seem to be an insurmountable challenge.

Manitoba in particular already exempts professional sports teams from Ontario and Quebec from quarantine requirements, if permission is sought ahead of time.

Manitoba Health said in a statement it “is currently evaluating the situation” but said it’s too early to comment further.

True North’s Wozny concurred, given all the logistics that remain up in the air.

“As always, any decision we make will be guided in close consultation with provincial and federal health authorities,” he said.

Getting dozens of public health authorities on the same page will not be an easy task.

But the same sort of skepticism was levelled at the NHL when it proposed a playoff bubble that proved to be 100 per cent successful from a public health perspective.

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