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The U.S. May Have Trouble Restarting Canada’s Sport

Like every other professional sports league headquartered in the United States, the NHL has been suspended for more than a month because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But unlike every professional sports league headquartered in the United States, the NHL features a not insignificant number of teams based in Canada. MLS boasts three Canadian teams, MLB and the NBA each include one, and the NFL, NWSL and WNBA have zero. By comparison, seven of the NHL’s 31 teams — almost a quarter of the league — make their homes in the Great White North.

As the NHL begins to plan its eventual restart — the league and its players association recently formed the so-called Return to Play Committee to get that ball rolling — it is faced with a question that other professional sports leagues headquartered in the U.S. are not encountering on the same scale: How do you jump-start a league that’s subject to the policy recommendations of two different countries?

Parsing and navigating the coronavirus policy recommendations of the U.S. is a difficult enough task to begin with. Despite the president’s assertion last month that he has total authority over states, it falls to governors to ultimately decide when to reopen their states. The NHL has teams playing in 18 different jurisdictions,1 which means it will have to contend with 18 different reopening plans. What is true of Florida’s plan to reopen fully is not likely to be true of Pennsylvania’s, and on down the line.

But while President Trump reportedly wants sports back as soon as possible, Canada isn’t as eager. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that provinces will be allowed to decide for themselves when to reopen, so the NHL will have to coordinate with the five Canadian provinces NHL teams call home. The world’s preeminent professional hockey league has a byzantine puzzle to solve.

Just as reopening plans in Massachusetts won’t mirror those in Arizona, reopening plans in Manitoba are not likely to coincide with those in Quebec. Indeed, officials in the predominantly French-speaking province called for the cancellation of all festivals and sporting events through Aug. 31. Alberta has canceled all large gatherings until at least the end of the summer; the same is currently true in British Columbia, Ontario and Manitoba.

These differing approaches — along with differing rates of infection from city to city, state to state and province to province — have made it all but impossible for the NHL to finish the 2019-20 season in the same manner it began. It will not be safe or even possible for teams to hit the road again soon, given stay-at-home orders, bans on large gatherings and travel restrictions. (The U.S.-Canada border is closed until mid-May to nonessential travelers.) Playing games in every city across the league, and especially every city in Canada, is very much off the table at this point.

Some NHL teams are in more heavily hit areas

NHL teams by confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. states or Canadian provinces in which that team resides, as of May 1

Team Cases Team Cases
Buffalo Sabres 299,106 Columbus Blue Jackets 18,027
New York Islanders 299,106 Ottawa Senators 16,608
New York Rangers 299,106 Toronto Maple Leafs 16,608
New Jersey Devils 118,652 Colorado Avalanche 15,182
Boston Bruins 60,265 Nashville Predators 10,735
Chicago Blackhawks 52,918 Carolina Hurricanes 10,509
Anaheim Ducks 48,917 Arizona Coyotes 7,648
Los Angeles Kings 48,917 St. Louis Blues 7,562
San Jose Sharks 48,917 Calgary Flames 5,355
Philadelphia Flyers 45,763 Edmonton Oilers 5,355
Pittsburgh Penguins 45,763 Minnesota Wild 5,136
Detroit Red Wings 41,379 Vegas Golden Knights 5,007
Florida Panthers 33,690 Washington Capitals 4,323
Tampa Bay Lightning 33,690 Vancouver Canucks 2,112
Dallas Stars 28,087 Winnipeg Jets 275
Montreal Canadiens 27,538

Sources: NHL, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Public Health Agency of Canada

The league could take a wait-and-see approach, with the NHL and NHLPA agreeing not to resume play until restrictions have been rolled back in every state and province in the United States and Canada, a timely start to the 2020-2021 season be damned. That could work, but it doesn’t account for the difficulty in predicting what the pandemic will look like in five days, let alone in five months.

As it stands, the NHL is toying with the idea of using two to four different arenas as hubs at which remaining regular-season games, and some version of the playoffs, could be played behind closed doors. Alberta was floated as one of those cities as recently as a week and a half ago, but its current approach to large gatherings rules it out. And though current restrictions on large gatherings and sporting events dictate that professional hockey likely won’t be played on Canadian soil until at least what would have been the beginning of the 2020-21 season, the league is still considering Toronto as a hub.

Of course, the safety of players and team personnel should be the league’s top priority. The NHL is taking a four-phase approach to restarting play, with phase one focusing on self-quarantine. And that first phase — which has been in place for NHL players and staff since the league suspended operations on March 12 — may be coming to a close. According to a joint statement between the NHL and its players association released on April 29, phase two may commence shortly, meaning players may return to “small group activities in NHL Club training facilities” as soon as mid-May. But because rates of infection vary from one NHL city to the next, there are still a lot of unknowns. Returning to practice hardly means returning to league play.

What’s certain is that the NHL and NHLPA want to find some way to finish the season. What’s uncertain is how exactly that will happen in the face of so many unknowns — and so many different sets of rules.

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  1. Seventeen different states plus Washington, D.C.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.