Manitoba, Quebec officials think NHL could develop plan for safe return to play

Quebec’s premier and Manitoba’s top doctor are expressing optimism about a potential NHL plan to stage a 2020-21 season during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault said Wednesday the province’s public health measures shouldn’t impact a resumption of activities for the Montreal Canadiens.

Legault said he’s had discussions with Canadiens owner Geoff Molson, and the premier added he’s confident the NHL has the financial ability to put together measures that would protect teams as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.

“I think the stakes are more on the side of what concessions the players will make on their salaries,” Legault said. “As far as health standards are concerned, we managed to do it this summer [with all teams in secure zones in Edmonton and Toronto], so I think it will be possible to do it from mid-January.”

Manitoba chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin doesn’t see the NHL resuming play as a big risk to the public.

“The protocols that they have in place, the frequent testing, the bubble format that they have really possess very minimal risk to the public,” he said.

“Certainly, there is risk at the business level, a single case that develops could have a big impact on the team or the league. But as far as the risk to the public the protocols that are in place makes that risk very, very minimal.”

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However, Manitoba acting deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal noted there is still work to be done.

“It’s not just done locally, it’s done nationally as well,” Atwal said. “We are determining is it a reasonable, safe return-to-play program. There is still discussions on that right across the five provinces that have teams that are specifically involved.

“I don’t have a yes/no answer in relation to if it’s going to happen but again work is being done on that as well.”

Circumstances may require adjustments

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Wednesday the league and the players’ association are continuing to work on a framework for the season, including the possibility of using hub cities.

Speaking during a video panel discussion on “Holding Domestic and International Competitions in the Modern Conditions of a Pandemic” at the World Hockey Forum in Moscow, Bettman said a lot still needs to be decided.

“Right now, we’re focused on whether or not we’re going to play in our buildings and do some limited travelling or play in a bubble, and that’s something we’re working on and getting medical advice on,” the commissioner said. “We don’t think we can conduct an entire regular season that way … But circumstances, depending on where [COVID-19] is spiking and where the medical system is being taxed at any given time, may require us to adjust.”

Bettman added the preference is playing games at the league’s 31 arenas, even if fans aren’t allowed inside. He also conceded there’s a chance that won’t be possible in some cases.

“So, for example, we have a couple of clubs that can’t hold training camp or conduct games even without fans in their current buildings and facilities, and we’re going to have to move them somewhere else to play,” he said.

“If enough teams can’t play, again, without fans, in their own facilities, then we may have to move more and more towards a hub. It may be that some teams are playing in other buildings. It may be that a whole group of teams have to play in other buildings.”

But Bettman said bubbles like the ones used during the league’s summer restart aren’t in the cards.

“For an entire regular season, even if it’s abbreviated, we didn’t think we could put the players in a bubble for six months,” he said. “That just wasn’t practical.”

The league has targeted mid-January as a potential start date.

A major issue facing the NHL is travel across the border with the U.S., which is currently closed to non-essential travel. Seven of the league’s 31 teams that would play in 2020-21 are based in Canada, with the rest in the U.S.

All-Canadian division

One solution the NHL is reportedly considering is an all-Canadian division. Legault said he’d look forward to seeing stars on other Canadian clubs, including Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Toronto’s Auston Matthews, in Montreal more often.

With an all-Canadian division and American teams not crossing the border, provincial and state rules would be the main concern for the NHL.

Legault also noted hotels aren’t full right now, meaning it should be easy to preserve team bubbles.

Legault’s comments come as Quebec struggles to contain a second wave of COVID-19 infections. The province reported 1,897 new COVID-19 infections and 43 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus on Wednesday.

Legault announced Tuesday that secondary schools will close for an additional week in January and non-essential retail stores will be forced to close from Dec. 25 until at least Jan. 10.