When the puck drops on Wednesday, January 13, it will start perhaps the most unusual NHL season ever. A 56-game regular season with four completely realigned (or newly organized) divisions of teams, including the first-ever all-Canadian grouping, the North Division. This is what the 2021 NHL season will look like:
This is actually not the first time the usually 82-game NHL season has been shortened. In both 1994–1995 and 2012–2013, a labour disputes disrupted the season.
But of course, we all know why this year's season has been slow to get going. The coronavirus forced the league to change plans.
Due to the pandemic, it is very difficult to cross the border between Canada and the United States. There was no way for the league's teams to travel between countries the way they normally do. The only reasonable thing? Change how the league is set up so teams don't have to cross the border at all.
To keep things fair, teams will only play other teams in their own division.
Though it will be different, many players, coaches, and fans are excited by this new setup.
"I think it's just going to be awesome," Jets coach Paul Maurice said in a press conference after the announcement was made. "It's going to be way over the top because the Canadian media, all the websites, all the talk will be about the Canadian teams."
It's true that for Canadian fans, the NHL will feel like their national league. In addition, teams will be playing each other in back-to-back games to reduce travel even within Canada. And sports fan know how the intensity of back-to-back games adds to the atmosphere on the ice. Though speaking of atmosphere, a major part of the vibe will still be missing. The fans. And that speaks to another issue in this restart.
Not everyone excited
Coronavirus numbers have been increasing across most of Canada, leading to new travel restrictions. This is especially true in dense cities such as Toronto and Montreal, which are home to NHL teams. So fans cannot travel to games and gather in arenas.
While some welcome being able to see NHL hockey again, even if it's just on a screen, others wonder: Why should athletes get to travel across Canada when I can't?
"We're not blind to understand that we're very lucky to be able to come into work to play the game that we love," said Oilers superstar Connor McDavid. But he and many other players hope that what they're doing can be seen as a good thing for people during these times.
As Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff puts it, "I think everyone's looking for something to make them feel good." He and others hope that seeing hockey can be that thing for some.
It's an interesting debate. Is it better for a society to get to see a form of entertainment that so many people love? Or should the NHL be forced to observe the same restrictions as everyone else? Either way, the beginning of the 2021 NHL season will be an event people will be talking about this week.