The NHL believes all seven of its Canadian teams can start the season playing out of their home arenas.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement Thursday that the league believes it is clear to play in Canada after discussions over the past 24 hours with provincial health authorities.
“On the basis of our discussions (with provincial health authorities) in the past week, as well as our exchange of correspondence over the last 24 hours, we believe we are aligned and in agreement on the conditions on which each of our Canadian franchises can begin play in their own buildings for the start of the 2020-21 NHL season,” Daly said.
The league has been involved in discussions with the five provincial governments which have NHL teams to try to gain approval to play starting Jan. 13 during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The NHL realigned its divisions for the 2021 season so that the North Division — which features all seven Canadian teams — would not have to cross the U.S.-Canada border, which remains closed to non-essential travel until at least Jan. 21.
On Wednesday, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, sent a note to the league on Wednesday on behalf of the five provinces, asking for increased COVID-19 testing or a return to a scenario in which all teams would be in a secure zone in one city, like the league did in the post-season in Edmonton and Toronto last summer.
But it appears that the requests for increased COVID-19 testing from the provincial governments have been accepted by the NHL, which was one hurdle to overcome.
“[The NHL] had to agree to some additional testing as part of satisfying the governments that the plan they put in place will keep everyone safe,” Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported. “But for these teams that had this hanging over them, I think this brings some relief now with a couple weeks to go before the start of the season.”
There are still some potential amendments to work out before the league can stage games in Canada, though the NHL is confident that select changes won’t be necessary.
“One of them was maybe looking at the schedule to see if there’s a way to keep the travel at a minimum especially in January and early February here as there’s some lockdowns going into place,” said Johnston. “The league doesn’t think it’s going to have to alter that schedule. But I think it’ll look at what it can do to make sure everything is fine there. This also all has to be agreed upon.
“I don’t see anything that’s going to get in the way of seeing this become a reality.”
The league released its schedule on Wednesday, with each team playing 56 games — down from the usual 82.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are scheduled to host the Montreal Canadiens, while the Edmonton Oilers are slated to face the visiting Vancouver Canucks on Jan. 13 as part of a five-game schedule on opening night.
The Winnipeg Jets open Jan. 14 against the visiting Calgary Flames, while the Oilers and Canucks meet again in Edmonton.
The Ottawa Senators start their season Jan. 15 against visiting Toronto, the first of two games in as many days between the Ontario rivals in the nation’s capital.
Baseball-style series are common as the league attempts to reduce the travel. For example, the Canadiens and Senators each are scheduled to play three straight games in Vancouver in January.
— With files from the Canadian Press