With labor peace reportedly at hand Tuesday, after several weeks of negotiations on a revised economic system went around in circles, the NHL’s coronavirus-delayed season could still be cross-checked by the rampaging pandemic as the league attempts to begin play Jan. 13.

Time is growing short for a mid-January return to the ice.

Several critical issues remained to be resolved, but none were more significant than dealing with the surge in COVID-19 cases in North America. The NHL proved last summer it could complete its season in a bubble format, with zero positive tests in a little more than two months.

But the league and its players do not wish to return to a bubble for 2020-21. They prefer to play in home arenas, and with fans possibly in attendance at some point later in what will be a 56-game season conducted with limited opponents and limited travel.

Compounding matters are enhanced restrictions on sports in places such as Montreal, San Jose and Winnipeg. The NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, the Sharks’ Santa Clara County neighbors, have moved their home games and practices to Glendale, Arizona, to continue their season.

Might the Canadiens, Sharks and Jets be forced to relocate temporarily, too?

The closure of the United States-Canada border to all but essential travel continues to be a major issue. The Canadian government turned down the NBA’s Raptors’ request to play home games in Toronto this season, forcing the team to relocate to Tampa, Florida.

Canada also forced Major League Baseball’s Blue Jays from their Toronto home this past summer. The Blue Jays called Buffalo, New York, home for 2020, playing in a minor league ballpark that required lighting and other improvements to meet MLB standards.

As a result, the NHL is expected to realign its four divisions for the season, avoiding cross-border issues by grouping the seven Canadian teams in one division and the 24 teams in the U.S. in three eight-team, regional-based divisions.

For example, the Ducks and Kings would bid farewell to the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks and welcome the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild or St. Louis Blues to a realigned Pacific Division for the season.

The Ducks and Kings would then play each of their division opponents eight times to reach 56 games by the end of the regular season. The top four teams would advance to the playoffs, with the winner moving on to play the winner of the Central Division for the Western Conference title.

The Western champion would meet the Eastern winner, with the Stanley Cup awarded by July 15, or before the Tokyo Olympics begin and NBC shifts its coverage focus away from hockey. By then, some socially-distanced fans could be in attendance and the bubble format could be ancient history.

However, the NFL and college football and basketball have proved the best laid plans can go awry in the time of the pandemic. Positive tests have forced teams to cancel and/or reschedule games and, in some cases, pause all activities because of a lack of healthy players.

Vaccines are on the way, but it might be many months until the NHL gets its turn, likely well after front-line medical workers, the elderly, first responders and others. So, testing protocols and other COVID-19 plans must be developed in conjunction with scheduling.

Will the league be able to start the season in home arenas?

Or must it begin in four or more hub cities to comply with restrictions and make it safer?

Will training camps begin Jan. 1 for all of the teams? Or will the Ducks, Kings and the five other teams that didn’t qualify for the Return to Play in August get a head start? Will the Sharks be forced to follow the 49ers to Arizona if county restrictions aren’t lifted?

The only thing for certain is nothing is for certain.


By Richard Moran

Richard Moran loves to write about sports with the Golden State Online. Before that, he worked as a senior writer at ESPN. Richard grew up in San Diego and graduated from the University of San Diego in 2004, after which he worked as an editor for five years.

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