On Thursday’s anniversary of the opening of Maple Leaf Gardens, there was some hope for a hockey season in Hogtown.
The National Hockey League board of governors had an online meeting regarding various plans to re-launch in January. No official release was provided afterwards, but it’s becoming obvious that a shortened schedule with a seven-team Canadian division is in the Maple Leafs’ future.
But games in Toronto won’t look anything like 1931, or 2019 for that matter when the recovery plan in concert with the Players’ Association is hammered out. It’s more likely to be hockey amid deserted seats as in the 2020 playoff bubble at Scotiabank, with the lower bowl festooned with blue and white logos, a ‘Go Leafs Go’ loop heard via a Zoom call and other piped-in effects.
There are obvious health concerns to be addressed before even a limited number of fans could be allowed back, which would be later in an already condensed campaign. There were only scant cases of COVID-19 in Toronto when play was halted March 12 of last season, the day the Leafs were to have played the Nashville Predators before around 19,000 regulars.
But the second wave has struck harder than the first in these parts. There was a record provincial case count in the province of 1,575 as of Thursday afternoon, including 472 in Toronto alone. Medical experts are making ominous predictions that it’s going to get worse.
The Leafs and the general membership of the PA still have to reach agreement with the league on salary and delicate issues off the ice, the notion of long weeks in quarantine already being rejected.
“You’ll play for 10 to 12 days,” Bettman surmised earlier this week. “You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need.”
Fewer games and lower gate revenue are better than none and while the basketball Raptors might have to de-camp for an American city when the NBA revs up for its planned December start, word from Scotiabank Arena Thursday was building officials are just waiting for some timeline information from the league to have the ice ready.
Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and Rogers Place in Edmonton have some experience when it comes to setting up their rink operations for a COVID-clouded season, as host cities in the playoffs. They know about on-site testing, mask protocol, utilizing extra dressing rooms while others are being sanitized and keeping players separate from building staff and media.
There was no outbreak as players underwent volunteer COVID testing at their training bases during the summer and none during their time in the Toronto/Edmonton bubbles. Many Leafs have been working out voluntarily at their West End practice facility for weeks, other prospects are scattered overseas.
The Canadian Division would be a guaranteed hit for players and fans alike. Though it could require extra time for some players and club personnel to quarantine after crossing the border or arriving from Europe, there would be unfettered travel and a TV product in which to generate advertising money.
The NHL began as a four-team Canadian operation in 1917 and split off again in 1926-27. The Leafs and Montreal Canadiens were joined by that city’s second entry, the Maroons, as well as the first version of the Ottawa Senators and the former Hamilton Tigers (who’d become the New York Americans). There was interlocking play with a division of new franchises in Chicago and New York, who’d joined Boston, Pittsburgh and Detroit.
Ottawa was replaced by St. Louis for one season in 1934-35, before the Canadian group shrank to four teams and the divisions merged as the Second World War began. While a Northern team hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1993, in its 12 years of exclusivity up to 1938, the Canadian Division produced five; the Canadiens twice, one each for the Maroons, Ottawa and Toronto (the same season the Gardens opened). The division era did see the last Leaf to win a scoring title, Gordie Drillon, finishing 1-2 with teammate Syl Apps.
If they travel to Montreal, Ottawa or the West, the weird part for today’s Leafs would be not having their customary crowd support from travelling fans or resident loyalists. But they’d just be happy to hit the ice again.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020