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NHL’s plan for upcoming season hits potential roadblock

The league planned on having its seven Canadian teams play in their home arenas, but that might not be possible.
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos receives the Stanley Cup following his team's Game 6 win over the Dallas Stars in September in Edmonton, Alberta.
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos receives the Stanley Cup following his team's Game 6 win over the Dallas Stars in September in Edmonton, Alberta. [ MARKO DITKUN | Special to the Times ]
Published Dec. 18, 2020
Updated Dec. 18, 2020

The NHL’s work to finalize the framework for a 2021 season to begin Jan. 13 appears to have hit a major snag.

Owners and players recently overcame financial hurdles and were on pace to vote on a structure for an abbreviated schedule, with teams playing in regionally realigned divisions to limit travel, including one that would keep all seven Canadian teams playing north of the border.

But reports Thursday said the NHL hadn’t gained approval from Canadian provincial health authorities for proposed protocols that would allow the Canadian teams to play in their home arenas, creating the possibility that those teams might have to play in a hub-city format or find temporary homes in the United States.

The league’s hope has been that the Canadiens, Canucks, Flames, Jets, Maple Leafs, Oilers and Senators and would be able to travel freely around Canada and play a regular-season schedule and two playoff rounds without having to come to the United States and be subject to quarantine rules upon their return.

Now, with coronavirus cases rising on both sides of the border, there is doubt about whether the league will receive approval from all five provinces that host teams: Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.

“The Government of Canada’s priority is to protect the health and safety of Canadians,” Andre Gagnon, a spokesman for the Public Health Agency of Canada, told Canada’s Rogers Sportsnet in a statement. “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.”

The Canadian government is believed to prefer that its teams play in a hub, Sportsnet reported, similar to the format the league used when it returned to finish last season in bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton.

Commissioner Gary Bettman, speaking Wednesday as part of the World Hockey Forum, said the season might have to start in hub cities or a bubble but holding a full regular season inside a bubble isn’t realistic. The Stanley Cup finalists Lightning and Stars spent more than two months in isolation during last season’s playoff run, something players don’t want to repeat.

“We didn’t think we could put the players in a bubble for six months,” Bettman said. “Right now, we’re focused on whether or not we’re going to play in our buildings and do some limited traveling, or play in a bubble, and that’s something we’re working on and getting medical advice on.”

Due to virus-related travel restrictions in Canada, the NBA’s Toronto Raptors will play at least the first half of their home games this season at Amalie Arena, and baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays were forced to play their home games in Buffalo, N.Y., this year. But those situations differ from the NHL’s issue because those teams are the only Canadian franchises in their leagues and they couldn’t maintain a schedule while being subject to quarantine rules every time they returned home from the United States.

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If the Canadian teams can’t play games across provincial boundaries, that could not only delay the season’s proposed start but prompt new restructuring as well.

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.

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