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Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly moves the puck away from teammate Frederik Andersen as Montreal Canadiens centre Nick Suzuki pressures during first period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Jan. 13, 2021.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

By the time this newspaper lands on doorsteps on Thursday morning, National Hockey League fans in four Canadian cities will either be convinced their team is going to the Stanley Cup final, thanks to an opening-night win, or – in the irrational way many Canadian NHL fans tend to digest such things – that their team’s season is already unsalvageable, and the general manager and coach have to be fired immediately.

That’s right: The good old hockey game is back. Whether this turns out to be a smart idea will depend on a number of factors that go beyond the outcome of the season, or even whether a Canadian team wins the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1993 – a.k.a. four years before Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews were born.

It’s safe to assume most people in Canada are happy, in principle, about the return of NHL hockey. Watching the games will be one more pleasant, safe thing to do indoors, and the standings and statistics will be a distraction from the daily COVID-19 counts.

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Plus, it’s an unexpected bonus that for the 2021 season the league has put all seven Canadian teams in a single grouping, the Scotia NHL North Division, with the American teams in three other corporately-branded divisions south of the border: Honda West, MassMutual East and Discover Central.

(Hey, it’s a pandemic. A pro league has to make a buck somehow.)

Teams will only play regular-season games within their division. This is being done to minimize travel, but in Canada one side effect will be to maximize fan interest. Fierce rivals such as Montreal and Toronto, or Edmonton and Calgary, will play each other nine or 10 times – and sometimes for three games in a row. It could get intense, since every game will count that much more in a shorter, 56-game schedule.

The arrangement also happens to guarantee that four Canadian teams will make the playoffs (the tradeoff being that three definitely will not), and that one will automatically be in the semi-final.

It’ll be like Canada having its own league for a season, as well as a heightened chance of seeing one of its teams make the final. That’s worth cheering for.

There are, however, serious potential downsides to the NHL’s effort to salvage a season, the most obvious being if it leads to a COVID-19 superspreader event.

Fans aren’t in danger, at least in Canada, where none of the teams is allowing spectators into their arenas.

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But players, staff, league employees and various support workers will be at risk as the teams hop back and forth between cities. The serious illness or death of just one of them would raise retrospective doubts about the wisdom of going ahead with the season; anything worse could be a disaster for the NHL.

The league showed it is up to the task, thankfully, in the 2020 playoffs in August and September. The teams were bubbled in Toronto and Edmonton, testing was constant, and the protocols for being allowed to play were strict, and strictly adhered to. Even without fans in the stands, the hockey was fast and intense, and there were no reported positive COVID-19 test results among players.

Still, the pandemic is a lot worse now, and the 2021 season is more ambitious. It won’t be easy. This week the National Basketball Association, which is a month into a 72-game schedule, has seen a sharp rise in game postponements because of COVID-19. As well, some teams have had trouble fielding full squads because of numerous players being absent owing to virus protocols.

Another potential disaster for the NHL, particularly in Canada, would be if players were able to jump the queue and get vaccinated ahead of needier people.

Any special treatment, or even the perception of it, would backfire badly; you only have to remember the scandal in 2009 when some members of the Calgary Flames and their families were given special access to a swine flu vaccine that was at the time in short supply. The incident led to firings in Alberta’s health services, and a provincial investigation.

There are clear risks to bringing back the game now. But if the NHL and its teams follow the rules they’ve set, and people are smart, the season could prove to be a hopeful early sign of normalcy in a country that could badly use just such a thing.

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Just remember to wear a mask when you scream at the television.

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