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Pierre-Luc Dubois of the Columbus Blue Jackets scores the game-winning goal past Frederik Andersen of the Toronto Maple Leafs during the first overtime period to win Game Three of the Eastern Conference Qualification Round prior to the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena on August 06, 2020 in Toronto.Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

The NHL is finalizing plans to start the 2021 season on or around Jan. 13.

According to multiple reports, the seven Canadian teams will compete in their own division to avoid complications caused by COVID-19-related travel restrictions between Canada and the United States. The remaining 24 clubs would be realigned into three U.S. divisions.

The hope is that teams can complete a 56-game schedule.

The NHL board of governors was scheduled to hold a virtual meeting late Wednesday to hash out those and other issues. Among the things that still need to be agreed upon are health and safety protocols, the standard for postponing games and the number of players teams will be allowed to carry on their active rosters.

The NHL already backed off on a request that players accept pay concessions beyond what was agreed upon in July in a memorandum of understanding between them. Forbes reported on Wednesday that clubs’ operating income fell by an average of 68 per cent in the abbreviated 2019-20 season.

Games are unlikely to be played in front of spectators, especially at the start, because of the rising number of novel coronavirus cases in both countries. That causes an extreme cash crunch for organizations, which rely on ticket sales, suite rentals, concessions, sponsorships and parking fees for 70 per cent of their revenue.

Earlier this month, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported that four teams – Anaheim, Boston, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh – are exploring the possibility of playing their home games at outdoor venues, which could possibly allow for a limited number of fans to attend.

Much has yet to be ironed out before any final agreement is reached, with a number of possibilities still being considered. Friedman said this week that the league may be laying out a short-term hub plan – similar to what was used during this year’s playoffs – in case it is needed.

“There are a lot of things we have to do to return to play,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told the NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti on Tuesday. “For us to return to play, we’re not going to play 82 games, obviously, and we have travel issues because of the restrictions at the border.

“You can’t go back and forth, so we’re actually going to have to realign. If everything stays the way it is, we’re probably going to have a Canadian division and realign in the U.S., and we’re trying to focus on dealing with all of those challenges.”

If 56 games are played, Canadian teams would play each other eight times each. Schedules would be set up to accommodate back-to-back games between opponents to make travel easier.

Although fans of some Canadian teams would lament not being able to see Sidney Crosby on their home ice, an all-Canadian division would serve to enliven rivalries between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers and create new ones where they did not really previously exist.

Who wouldn’t want to watch the Oilers’ Connor McDavid and his new training buddy from Toronto, Auston Matthews, butt heads again and again?

The NHL hopes to resume playing a full schedule in 2021-22, but that will likely depend on the state of COVID-19 and the distribution and effectiveness of vaccines. That would allow spectators to return to return to arenas, and get a close look at the Seattle Kraken, the league’s next expansion team.

Seattle will join the Pacific Division while the Arizona Coyotes will move to the Central Division, which previously consisted of seven teams.