The NHL is preparing for a pandemic-altered regular season limited to divisional play while trying to determine if the league’s seven Canadian teams will be allowed to play in their country.
Taxi squads also are coming back as part of a tentative return-to-play plan reached Friday, and at least one team won’t be opening its season at home.
The San Jose Sharks will open training camp and start the regular season in Arizona, a person with knowledge of discussions told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity Saturday because details of the plan haven’t been made public.
The deal has already received support from the NHL Players’ Association, and features a 56-game regular season beginning Jan. 13. Training camps for the seven teams that didn’t qualify for the playoffs last season would open Dec. 31, with the remaining 24 teams opening camps Jan. 3.
The Sharks missed the playoffs, and their status is in limbo because Santa Clara County has banned contact sports through at least Jan. 8. The Sharks will follow in the steps of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, who are closing out their season in Arizona.
The Sharks said they had no comment “at this point” on relocating to Arizona.
In an email to the AP, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly deferred questions to the Sharks regarding their status. Daly added he was unable to share many details of the plan because the league has yet to brief its general managers.
As for the issues affecting the Canadian teams — Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver — Daly said they remain unresolved. Discussions are to continue through the weekend.
If health officials approve the NHL’s plan, the seven teams would compete in a new Canadian Division.
“The resumption of sports events in Canada must be undertaken in adherence to Canada’s measures to mitigate the importation and spread of COVID-19,” the Public Health Agency of Canada said in a statement Thursday night. “NHL teams and other professional sports must operate within the rules of their provincial jurisdictions for sports or sporting events.”
If the NHL is not be allowed to play in Canada, the teams would have to relocate to the United States.
Should that happen, Daly said the options would include having the teams compete in same division or have them divided among four realigned divisions based on location.
The NHL is already planning on a schedule in which teams compete only within their divisions to reduce travel.
While the NHLPA’s executive board has already supported moving forward with the agreed upon terms, the league’s board of governors has yet to vote, which is expected to happen in the next few days.
Under the plan, teams will continue with 23-player rosters with the addition of a “taxi squad,” made up of four to six players, the person said.
The additional players are necessary because the NHL won’t have a minor league system to draw on because the American Hockey League has pushed back its start to Feb. 5.
Exhibition games aren’t expected to be included in the lead-up to the season.
The NHL, like the NBA, finished last season in a quarantined bubble — one hub in Toronto, another in Edmonton, Alberta. Commissioner Gary Bettman awarded the Stanley Cup to the Tampa Bay Lightning in late September in Edmonton.
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.