The NHL released its schedule for the 2020-21 season Wednesday, but Ontario’s minister of sport said discussions are still ongoing about how the all-Canadian North division will operate.
Ontario is scheduled to enter a province-wide lockdown on Saturday that will last for 28 days in its most heavily populated regions. The NHL had previously announced that its new season will start on Jan. 13, 10 days before the lockdown is scheduled to lift in Toronto and Ottawa.
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.
Sport Minister Lisa MacLeod, who represents the Ottawa area in Ontario’s legislature, said federal and provincial governments are still meeting about the NHL’s return-to-play plan but that the logistics are complex.
“I’ll speak for Ontario, we would need clearance from Ottawa’s public health officer, Toronto’s public health officer, the chief medical officer of health and then it would ultimately go to cabinet for a decision,” said MacLeod.
“That would happen in every other single province that has a team.”
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.
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.
However, provincial health orders will make moving the teams across Canada difficult.
Ontario’s lockdown orders allow professional and elite athletes to train within the province but currently prohibits competition. Premier Doug Ford has also warned against crossing the Ontario-Quebec border, especially in the Ottawa valley region.
Quebec is also headed to a lockdown for the holiday season, with its provincial government saying that travel outside of a red zone like Montreal is not recommended unless it’s essential.
Manitoba’s measures require anyone arriving from eastern Canada, like Ontario or Quebec, to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival. Professional athletes employed by or affiliated with a team from Manitoba are exempt from that rule, but there’s no official word if the Jets’ opponents meet the “affiliation” requirement.
Alberta’s rules say that group indoor physical activities, including team sports, are prohibited or restricted across the province.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical health officer, said exemptions have been made for the Oilers and Flames for training but discussions were still ongoing about their return to play.
However, Alberta has given the upcoming world junior hockey championship in Edmonton the green light.
“If one or two provinces weren’t able to (accommodate the NHL) there would probably be potential to play out of a different city that was allowing it,” said MacLeod. “We’re not at that point yet.”
MacLeod said that the good news is that she’s having regular conversations with the Maple Leafs and Senators and that the talks are going well.
“We’re also cognizant of the fact that right now we’re in a public health crisis,” she said. “My goal, and the goal of every other member of our government, is to ensure that there are fewer people travelling during this period than ever before.”
MacLeod noted that she’s had conversations with Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s chief medical officer of health, and said that the public health official was “relatively supportive” of a return to play for the NHL.