Ontario mulls how all-Canadian division in NHL might work

OTTAWA, ON - FEBRUARY 15: John Tavares #91 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates around the net with the puck as Marcus Hogberg #35 of the Ottawa Senators defends the net at Canadian Tire Centre on February 15, 2020 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images) (Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photo, 2020 Getty Images)

TORONTO, ONT – Ontario’s minister of sport says the provincial government is examining how a Canadian division in the NHL might work.

Lisa MacLeod says discussions about the league’s return-to-play plan are being studied by Ontario public health authorities, the province’s chief medical officer of health and officials from Toronto and Ottawa.

She says she expects to join those conversations in the next few days, as will federal counterpart Steven Guilbeault.

There has been talk of a possible realignment for the upcoming season. One option could feature a seven-team all-Canadian division with no cross-border travel. The league has targeted mid-January as a potential start date.

Seven of the NHL’s 31 teams are in Canada: Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. A major issue is travel across the border with the U.S., which is currently closed to nonessential travel.

The Ontario Hospital Association on Thursday asked the Ontario government for a strict four-week lockdown in regions with high rates of COVID-19 positivity that would include Toronto and Ottawa, the two Ontario cities with NHL teams.

Also, the mayors of Toronto and Mississauga, Ontario, said Wednesday they want a strict four-week lockdown to begin over the winter holidays to slow the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the Toronto area.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault said Wednesday the province’s public health measures shouldn’t impact a resumption of activities for the Montreal Canadiens. Quebec is struggling to contain a second wave of COVID-19 infections.

Legault said he’s had discussions with Canadiens owner Geoff Molson, and the premier added he’s confident the NHL has the financial ability to put together measures that would protect teams as virus cases rise.

“I think the stakes are more on the side of what concessions the players will make on their salaries,” Legault said. “As far as health standards are concerned, we managed to do it this summer (with all teams in secure zones in Edmonton and Toronto), so I think it will be possible to do it from mid-January.”

Manitoba chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin doesn’t see the NHL resuming play as a big risk to the public.

“The protocols that they have in place, the frequent testing, the bubble format that they have really possess very minimal risk to the public,” he said.

However, Manitoba acting deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal wants to know if this is a “reasonable, safe return-to-play program.”

“There is still discussions on that right across the five provinces that have teams that are specifically involved,” Atwal said. “I don’t have a yes/no answer in relation to if it’s going to happen but again work is being done on that as well.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday the league and the players’ union are workingon a framework for the season, including the possibility of using hub cities.

Speaking during a video panel discussion at the World Hockey Forum in Moscow, Bettman said: “Right now, we’re focused on whether or not we’re going to play in our buildings and do some limited travelling or play in a bubble, and that’s something we’re working on and getting medical advice on.”

Bettman added the preference is playing games at the league’s 31 arenas, even if fans aren’t allowed inside. He also conceded there’s a chance that won’t be possible in some cases.

“If enough teams can’t play, again, without fans, in their own facilities, then we may have to move more and more towards a hub,” he said. “It may be that some teams are playing in other buildings. It may be that a whole group of teams have to play in other buildings.”

But Bettman said bubbles like the ones used during the league’s summer restart aren’t in the cards.

“For an entire regular season, even if it’s abbreviated, we didn’t think we could put the players in a bubble for six months,” he said. “That just wasn’t practical.”


The Canadian Press contributed to this report.