NHLers weigh in on all Canadian division: ‘It would be pretty unique’

CALGARY, AB - FEBRUARY 1: Buddy Robinson #53 of the Calgary Flames fights Jujhar Khaira #16 of the Edmonton Oilers during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on February 1, 2020 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

CALGARY, AB – FEBRUARY 1: Buddy Robinson #53 of the Calgary Flames fights Jujhar Khaira #16 of the Edmonton Oilers during an NHL game at Scotiabank Saddledome on February 1, 2020 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

Mitch Marner was asked recently about the possibility of the NHL going with an all-Canadian division next season.

The league finished its pandemic-delayed 2019-20 campaign with tightly-controlled bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton to protect against the spread of COVID-19, but with the coronavirus showing no signs of slowing down and the border with the United States still closed to non-essential travel, a seven-team circuit north of the 49th parallel seemed likely.

“It would definitely be interesting,” Marner, a star winger with the Toronto Maple Leafs, said last month. “We’ve got to be ready for whatever happens.”

Well, commissioner Gary Bettman indicated this week the league is exploring the idea of temporary realignment in 2020-21.

And an all-Canadian division appears to indeed be on the table.

“We’re not going to move all seven Canadian franchises south of the 49th parallel … so we have to look at alternative ways to play,” Bettman said Tuesday as part of a virtual panel discussion during the 2020 Paley International Council Summit. “While crossing the U.S.-Canadian border is an issue, we’re also seeing within the United States limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states.

“It’s again part of having to be flexible.”

Bettman added the league, which is working closely with the NHL Players’ Association, is contemplating the possibility of a reduction from the usual 82-game schedule and the use of temporary hubs where teams would play a fixed number of games in the same location and then return home for a period of time before resuming action.

It remains to be seen if Canadian clubs would set up in a hub or travel to individual cities, but if the Maple Leafs,
Montreal CanadiensOttawa SenatorsWinnipeg JetsCalgary FlamesEdmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks wind up grouped together, fans could be in for a treat.

“The Canadian teams are quite strong,” Montreal head coach Claude Julien said in October. “It might be a very competitive division. We know that Ottawa is being rebuilt — that doesn’t mean they aren’t competitive — but the other teams all believe in their chance to make the playoffs.

“People are likely to see very exciting and very competitive hockey.”

Six of Canada’s seven franchises took part in the summer resumption of play, with only the Senators on the outside looking in. There’s optimism in each city for whenever the league gets going — the NHL continues to target a Jan. 1 start date — and the temperature between rivals could be turned up with more games against the same opponents.

“It would be pretty cool, especially for Canadian hockey fans,” Canucks captain Bo Horvat said. “It’ll be heated and it’ll be some good hockey if it happens.”

It also doesn’t hurt that some of the game’s biggest names — including Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Marner and Auston Matthews with Toronto, Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson and Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine — could be pitted against each other more often.

“It would be a cool experience,” Marner said. “We’ve just got to be ready for whatever happens.”

Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa usually play in the Atlantic Division, Winnipeg is in the Central, and Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary are in the Pacific.

Senators forward Connor Brown, who was acquired from the Leafs in the summer of 2019, said he wouldn’t mind facing his old club a little more often.

“It would be interesting,” he said. “It’s all speculation, but it would be different.”

Canadiens winger Brendan Gallagher added that, like the bubble concept used during the restart, players have to be prepared to adapt on the fly.

“If that is the case, an all-Canadian division, I think it would be pretty unique,” he said. “Pretty neat, you get to see those other teams a little bit more and have an appreciation for what they do. And at the same time, there’s a little bit of pride involved when you’re playing for your Canadian division.

“I’m sure everyone would have a little bit of motivation.”

What a Canadian division could mean for the NHL

 Logan Lockhart

If you thought the 2020 edition of the Stanley Cup Playoffs was played under the oddest of circumstances, just wait until you see what may be in store for the upcoming regular season.

Put aside what you’re used to when watching a traditional NHL season unfold because amid the COVID-19 pandemic, realignment changes may be necessary.

A seven team group: Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal一The Canadian Division.

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly has acknowledged the potential format change for the upcoming season, and knows that under these circumstances, nothing can be ruled out.

“One possibility is to create a competition in the league among the Canadian clubs,” said Daly on November 2 in an interview with ESPN.

First, it was the MLB that had to navigate around the US-Canada border restrictions, as evident with the Toronto Blue Jays having to play their home games in Buffalo for the 2020 campaign. Now, it’s the NBA’s turn to think of a home-game contingency plan for the Raptors.

On deck一the NHL.

But it’s not just one team that the league has to work with. Instead, it’s seven.

The idea of a “Canadian Division” is becoming more and more likely if the NHL wants to follow up on the plan for an early-January start time for the 2020-2021 season. For hockey fans south of the border, it could come across as a radical alignment that has no place in the structure of the league going forward. For Canadian hockey fans, it could feel just right.

The debate of which NHL franchise is most likely to bring the Stanley Cup north of the border has loomed between Canadian fan bases for the better part of the 21st century. After all, it has been since 1993 when a team based north of the 49th parallel did it一the Montreal Canadiens.

It’s that very discussion that has fuelled rivalries between Canadian franchises, no matter where in the country they are located.

The intrigue of the potential division comes from not only the built-in rivalries between all seven franchises, but the optimism that has been seen on the ice in recent times. Six of the seven Canadian teams were invited to participate in the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers, with the exception of the Senators. But even with Ottawa, better days seem to be on the horizon after a productive draft and busy offseason from the team’s brass.

At face value, isolating all seven Canadian teams from the rest of the league seems like a desperate attempt to save the season. But on the contrary, the potential division could provide the NHL with a much-needed rivalry-induced product.

The unique nature of a division that covers an entire country would be one of the main selling points for any casual viewer of the sport during the 2020-2021 regular season, even in the U.S. More games that involve the Maple Leafs-Canadiens and Flames-Oilers is a win for hockey fans everywhere.

The pair of games listed above only begins to scratch the surface of the on-ice storylines that can come out of the upcoming season if the Canadian Division does in fact come to fruition.

As opposed to taking the stance that acting on necessary change is a hurdle that the NHL will have to overcome, it should be viewed as an opportunity for the league to ensure that not only their players are safe, but the product on the ice is as good as ever.