NHL hopes extended U.S.-Canada border closing won’t hurt return to play chances

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NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly hopes that Tuesday’s news about an extended U.S. – Canadian border closing “will not materially affect the resumption of play timelines” the league is considering. Daly relayed that message to reporters including Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston and the AP’s John Wawrow.

To clarify, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the agreement to close the U.S. – Canadian border crossing to non-essential travel has been extended. The border closing now runs through June 21, marking the second extension. (Before Tuesday’s extension, the restriction ran through May 21.)

Wawrow reports that some are worried restrictions will be extended beyond June 21, too.

Uncertainty about how U.S. – Canadian border closing may affect NHL

It’s tough to say how realistic Daly’s hopes are, considering the many variables involved.

Johnston explains some of the potential hurdles stemming from Canada’s requirements:

Travel restrictions could provide a barrier to getting NHLers back to their playing cities in hopes of holding three- to four-week training camps. Those restrictions currently include a 14-day period of self-isolation for anyone returning to Canada from abroad.

Johnston and others note that more than 100 NHL players are currently waiting out this situation in Europe. So there could be some challenges regarding travel.

That said, TSN’s Frank Seravalli provides background information for why the NHL’s reasonable to hope that such restrictions might not be a dealbreaker:

Healthy people may continue to cross the border for “non-discretionary” reasons – for work and employment purposes – and NHL players and team personnel fall into that category.

Most non-Canadian players on Canadian NHL clubs hold a work permit, according to an immigration source, which would qualify them as a temporary worker and allow them to cross the border during the pandemic.

A similar work visa exists for Canadian players who play for U.S.-based teams.

Even so, Seravalli adds that “border clarification remains one of the NHL’s biggest hurdles.”

The many difficult logistics of a possible return to NHL play

This development makes it tough to imagine Canadian cities ranking among the “hub cities” that may run NHL games (playoff or otherwise).

Multiple reports indicate that 24-team formats rank as the most popular NHL return to play solutions, at least lately. Some ideas called for two hub cities in Canada, and two in the U.S., with six teams in each hub. If Canada isn’t much of an option, it sure sounds like solutions might be a little … congested.

Running two hubs with 12 NHL teams each could be a challenge

To get all of that right, the NHL would need to really thread the needle.

Consider that each NHL team features 20 players (18 skaters, two goalies) plus scratches. That number could balloon depending upon “taxi squad” restrictions. Add in various staffers, and you’re talking about a lot of people per team. Multiply those staffers times 12, then in two different locations. That would mean there would be a lot of people — and thus, risks — to manage.

You can melt your brain thinking about the little details of keeping such a large group of people safe.

Also, If you have 12 teams in a hub, how many rinks/arenas would you need to be able to play games in a timely manner? How large of a bubble would you need to make such a “hub,” work, actually?

Maybe border closing is a chance for NHL to temper expectations about a return?

Honestly, it feels like the NHL and NHLPA might want to temper certain expectations. Sure, it would be great to get a robust training camp in, so players are as close to peak performance as possible. Such a lengthy prelude means rolling the dice that you’ll avoid wider restrictions, though.

And, yes, getting 24 teams limits worries about fairness. Players like Sidney Crosby speak about wanting a playoff with “integrity,” which implies a typical four-round, best-of-seven format eventually emerges.

But is that the most realistic scenario? Cooler heads might lean toward fewer games, fewer teams, or other compromises. The more ambitiously you add more games and teams, the more you risk pulling the plug before someone can credibly raise the Stanley Cup.

(Um, hopefully without anyone drinking out of it.)

Decisions coming soon … or not?

Once we roll past the many, many lingering questions that are difficult to answer, we get a clearer one. What’s next, then?

It sounds like there are mixed opinions regarding when we’ll get more clarity.

TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported that the NHL and NHLPA had been making some “traction” lately regarding return to play plans. LeBrun describes “constant dialogue” between the two sides since Saturday. With all of that in mind, LeBrun reports that there’s some hope for a “resolution” in 7-10 days.

On the other hand, Wawrow reports that decisions might not come “for another few weeks.”

Overall, it sounds like we’re in some ways returning to the same state: a state of “to be determined.” It’s difficult to figure out when we’ll get more answers, and also how often the questions themselves might change.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.