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GARRIOCH: An all-Canadian NHL division could be welcomed with open arms north of the border

Files: Could an All-Canadian division be a solution to the NHL season during the time of COVID-19?
Files: Could an All-Canadian division be a solution to the NHL season during the time of COVID-19?

If the NHL does opt to start the season with an all-Canadian division, there’d be no pushback from the Canadian Radio and Television Communications Commission.

The good folks at the CRTC would be thrilled with all the Canadian content coming across the airwaves.

With the second of wave of COVID-19 shifting into high gear as the winter months draw closer, the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association are expected to sit down soon to discuss the best path to make it viable to have a 2020-21 season in some way, shape or form.

Right now, all options are on the table, including starting in divisional bubbles in four cities, or having crowds with limited fans if national, provincial and local governments give their blessing.

One idea on the table would see all seven Canadian teams —Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks — start and possibly finish the year in their own division.

The talk heated up last week when Vegas owner Bill Foley told the Review Journal that the possibility of an all-Canada division was being looked at.

“We’re studying everything and this is one of the potential solutions,” Habs’ owner Geoff Molson told La Presse when asked about Foley’s comments in an interview this week.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly met with the 32 general managers Friday, but there were more questions than answers.

The idea has been floated they may play each eight times with a 48-game starting in February. No, there aren’t any guarantee it’ll happen, but the thought of all these rivals playing each other this many times is intriguing. Those who follow the NHL closely believe it would be well received.

“Let’s remember in a six-team league they played each other 14 times,” said former NHL VP of broadcasting John Shannon, who was a longtime producer of Hockey Night in Canada on CBC and a Sportsnet analyst. “Prior to 1967, Montreal and Toronto would play each other 14 times and nobody ever got sick of it or nobody got sick of the New York Rangers.

“I go back to the Smythe Division in the early 1980s and there were eight games between teams. I don’t see it as a major issue.”

That’s why the league isn’t shutting the door on any scenario. After cancelling the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day in Minnesota and the all-star weekend in Florida Thursday earlier this week, the league insisted it still hoped to start on or around Jan. 1.

Let’s be honest, if the league has to start with an all-Canadian division then it’s better than the alternative.

“What it comes down to is any form of hockey better than hockey at all at the NHL level?,” said TSN Insider Darren Dreger, who has reported on this issue closely. “Unless there is a significant turn in the second wave of COVID-19, the NHL is going to consider every conceivable scenario.

“And, an all-Canadian division is something they’re definitely going to consider. Whether or not they do it, time will tell.”

Dreger added the American Hockey League is looking at a similar scenario because of restrictions on the border. While Montreal (Laval), Toronto, Ottawa (Belleville) and Winnipeg all have their farm teams within close proximity, the possibility exists Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton could move their AHL franchises closer in the short-term.

Yes, teams from Canada can fly into the United States and American franchises can land here, however, visitors are subject to a 14-day quarantine.

“These are bigger-picture discussions that they’re having at all levels, from the clubs right to the commissioner’s office,” Dreger said. “Unless restrictions are loosened through a better environment from a health perspective or the American election _ which could also have a bearing on decisions moving forward specific to the border.

“That’s what the league, owners and all involved have to wrestle with. If (a Canadian division) is the best form of hockey, to keep hockey relevant then the NHL would do it and would consider it for sure.”

There’s so many ifs and buts, it’s hard to know what’s going to happen. The NHL general managers met Friday with Bettman and Daly, but they had little in the way of answers. Even the possibility of starting the season with bubbles isn’t off the table.

No, the players don’t like the idea of bubbles after finishing the season at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto and Rogers Place in Edmonton, that remains an option. One idea being discussed is having seven eight teams go into a bubble for a couple of weeks and then return home for a week.

There’s even been a suggestion if the Canadian teams go from East to West or vice-versa, they’d play more than one game in the city they’re visiting. For example, the Leafs could land in Vancouver on Sunday, face the Canucks on Tuesday and Thursday before heading to another Western Canadian city.

Again, this isn’t written in stone.

“If you’re going to do a two-game series where Ottawa goes to Calgary and then heads to Edmonton at which point does it become unfair?,” said Shannon. “By the fourth game, the Oilers would have huge advantage being at home and the Senators, like most long road trips, will be exhausted. But, by playing the same team twice you have a little bit more a book on them.”

Of course, a Canadian division sounds exciting, but you also need to be able to travel from province to province.

If you go into Manitoba from out-of-province you’re supposed to quarantine for 14 days. Yes, negotiations with the government can take place and there can be a way to figure out a scenario where both sides are satisfied, but the numbers are rising and nobody is sure what kind of flexibility will be available.

The Bettman and Daly didn’t have many answers for the GMs Friday.

“The goal is still to start as early as Jan. 1 and to play a full season,” Daly told NHL.com Friday. “Having said that, we also recognize, depending on a host of different things, that it could take a different form and we might not be playing a full season, we might not be playing into the summer, we might not be starting on Jan. 1. So there’s still a lot of uncertainty.”

Dreger said the NHL, with assistance from the head office, is taking a hard look at all its hockey revenues because ultimately Bettman and the owners have difficult decisions ahead.

He’ll present the owners with the real numbers they’ll lose if the league doesn’t play, if it suits up without fans and if they wait with the hope that sooner or later people will be allowed into arenas.

“It’s only so (Bettman) can put all his financial eggs in one basket and present to the owners at some point in the future,” said Dreger. “The only way he can do that, economically speaking, is to have the revenue that’s generated on a club-by-club basis.”

Nobody wants to talk about it, but what if makes more financial sense to just cancel the season and try again next year?

“That’s a scary proposition,” Dreger said.

What’s interesting is officials from the NHL and the Players’ Association planned to sit down within seven to 10 days of the Stanley Cup final to discuss the next year. There are 10 players on the Return to Play committee and, thus far, there hasn’t been a meeting since the Cup final ended on Sept. 28.

There’s little chance the NHL can live up to its up Jan. 1 start day and it’s starting to look like a Feb. 1 date for puck drop makes more sense.

Nobody feels the rivalries would be too saturated by having eight editions of the Battle of Ontario between the Leafs and Senators or the Battle of Alberta with the Flames and Oilers facing off that many times.

As Shannon noted, not only would the people at Sportnset/TVA like the idea, so would TSN/RDS which has the regional rights for Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Winnipeg.

“The realism of a Canadian division has been discussed,” said Shannon. “People in Canada would love it. It would be a no-brainer for the NHL. It’s funny, when you look at the level of superstars playing in Canada right now, every Canadian team has somebody you want to watch. How could you turn it down?”

Officials from Rogers Sportsnet don’t want to make any comment until the schedule has been settled but the belief is they’d be happy with Canadian teams facing off in their own division.

“I would suspect from a Rogers’ perspective they’d be happy because it would be cheaper because you’d end up with one broadcast for two Canadian teams and they might own the rights to those teams,” Shannon said. “It may save them some money if they can use one feed.

“Canadian teams vs. Canadian teams in our country draw better. They do and they always have so why not go with it? And, it’s in the short-term, it’s not for the rest of our lives.”

The bottom line in all of this: No idea is a bad one until the NHL can get a handle on where this is all headed.

“This is a tough spot for Bettman because he, in no way, can control this process,” Dreger said. “It’s out of his hands, the owners’ hands, the players’ hands and no one was predicting when the threat of COVID-19 (shut down the league) in March that we’d be having conversations like this in October.”

Yep, and now we wait.

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Twitter: @sungarrioch

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