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 weekend announcement’s language — “(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 schedule 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 regarding the province’s NHL teams hosting games.
“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 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.
British Columbia, which gave a thumbs down to the NHL’s tightly-controlled “bubble” scenario in the summer before the league went with Edmonton and Toronto, is one of the provinces that needs to sign off on the plan to have games played in Vancouver.
Health Minister Adrian Dix sounded lukewarm at best when asked about the proposal at a media availability in Victoria.
“(The protocols) are obviously significantly different from what was presented in the summer ... which occurred during a time of relatively low COVID-19 caseloads in Canada and in North America,” Dix said. “They’re taking a different step, shall we say, maybe say a step back from that. And that’s something to be reviewed.
“We’ll make some decisions in the days to come as to whether the plan meets the needs of people.”
B.C. health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry — reading from basically the same script as her counterparts across the country — said NHL, and the Canucks in particular, “have a proven record of doing the right things and have been very strong in terms of their protocols.”
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“We are looking at this in detail,” she said. “We’ll be responding with our advice in the coming days.”
Dix said the B.C. government won’t play favourites, even with professional sports.
“This is not the case where there will be one standard for one group of individuals, and one standard for another,” he said. “This is a very serious time in the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everybody is making extraordinary sacrifices.”
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 in the summer by using those bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto. The league said there were zero positive tests for COVID-19 over more than two months, but the exercise 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 campaign that’s scheduled see the Stanley Cup awarded in mid-July.
Dr. Jazz Atwal, Manitoba’s acting deputy chief provincial public health officer, said officials there are also going over the NHL’s proposal.
“Work is ongoing in relation to whether or not there is public health risk,” he said in Winnipeg.
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.”
And Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, used Connor McDavid-like skill to sidestep the question when asked about NHL hockey being played in the province next month.
“This isn’t just an Alberta decision,” Hinshaw said in Edmonton. “The decision involves all the locations that have NHL teams. And so the critical piece is that we’re able to find a path forward that ensures that public health is protected.
“That’s the work that we’re in right now.”
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