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NHL could adjust playoffs for travel restrictions in Canada

Cardboard cutouts of fans are displayed in the seats before an NHL hockey game between the Vancouver Canucks and the Toronto Maple Leafs in Vancouver, British Columbia, Sunday, April 18, 2021.  (Associated Press)
By Stephen Whyno Associated Press

The NHL is preparing contingency plans if virus restrictions in Canada prevent travel between provinces or back and forth to the U.S. during the playoffs.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman on Tuesday called the situation “wildly unpredictable.”

The NHL put off the thorny issue of cross-border travel before the season began by having all seven Canadian teams play in the same division for the entire regular season and first two rounds of the playoffs. Nothing has been decided about how to handle a potential problem.

“Where we play is going to depend on COVID, obviously – we hope to keep everybody healthy – and it’s going to depend on government regulations in terms of where we’re going to be able to travel our players and our teams and where we can’t,” Bettman said. “If we can’t travel in Canada, either as among the provinces or from the U.S. to Canada and back, we’ll make whatever adjustments we have to do to get the playoffs completed.”

The earliest a Canadian team would need to play a counterpart in the U.S. under this season’s postseason format would be in June, though there has been speculation about the first two rounds of the North Division playoffs happening in a quarantined bubble. That could even be in the U.S., where 23 of 24 teams now have fans in attendance.

Another possibility is moving the North winner to a U.S. hub city for home games when the playoffs reach the semifinals, which is guaranteed to have three American teams and one from Canada. That hub city could then be used for part of the Stanley Cup Final if a Canadian team qualifies.

Canada has so far lagged behind in vaccinating people against COVID-19 compared to the U.S. Canada has fully vaccinated 2.71% of people, while the U.S. is just under 29%.

That disparity has prevented the NHL from relaxing virus protocols for teams that reach a certain threshold of vaccination, which is the case with the NBA and Major League Baseball that currently have their Canadian teams playing in the U.S.