It's hard to imagine the North Division not being decided in a bubble

Justin Cuthbert
·5-min read

As the implications associated with COVID-19 complicated matters and skewered schedules for several, if not, the majority of teams located south of the border in the early weeks and months of the NHL regular season, the league's seven Canadian franchises remained largely unaffected, able to operate without much concern in their own international silo.

It was no reason to puff out a single chest, really, but the minor successes Canada had in flattening its curves from wave to wave, as well as the diligence shown from organizations facing these unprecedented challenges, was a least worth acknowledging. 

The best was being made of a bad situation, it seemed.

VANCOUVER, BC - MARCH 31: A rink attendant pushes a game net off the ice after the NHL game between the Calgary Flames and the Vancouver Canucks was postponed due to a positive COVID test result of a player at Rogers Arena on March 31, 2021 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.  (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
The situation in Vancouver has raised alarm bells for the rest of the North Division. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

Unfortunately, the thing about COVID-19 — a virus that has now infected a staggering 1 million Canadians — is that there has always been this certain inevitability. Holes can only be patched up for only so long before any arrangement springs a leak. And as the situation has worsened here in Canada as society confronts its third, and most worrisome and complex wave, the primary issues facing the NHL — and the most concerning since the beginning of the pandemic — now lie north of the border.

The virus first hit Montreal late last month with the postponement of four Canadiens games. In this case, the safeguards fortunately held firm, with the stringent testing process snuffing out the single positive diagnosis before the virus could take up residence in the Canadiens' dressing room. 

Instead of an outbreak, two players landed on the COVID-19 list in Montreal, allowing the team to soon return to practice and resume its schedule. It was another example, it seemed, of the efficacy of the protocols put in place. 

No less than a week later, however, the limitations of that same system were realized. The troubling interval between taken test and returned result meant that one infected player became a few more, then several more on top of that, before a full-on outbreak of the P-1 Brazilian COVID-19 variant was occurring inside the Vancouver Canucks' facilities. 

Now players and coaches, as well as their families, are extremely sick, struggling with an evolved strain of the virus threatening public health in their community. 

Returning to the ice couldn't, or shouldn't, be lower on the list of priorities for the Canucks, a team that could very well have had its season come to an end by this regrettable situation.

This isolated incident is, fortunately, just that: isolated. In fact, as the most devastating COVID-19 outbreak threatens what's left of one team's season, the situation has improved dramatically in markets south of the border.

There are a variety of reasons for this, but the prevailing one, while shrouded in secrecy, is the fact that many NHL organizations located south of the border have begun or even completed the vaccination process. 

As advanced as the U.S. was in terms of say, community spread, when compared to major Canadian markets, the nation's nose has been well out in front just the same in terms of vaccine rollout. 

We don't know just how far along each team is in the process, and the NHL and its teams will remain hush-hush on this for a variety of reasons, but it's safe to assume now that players, teams and personnel in the United States are operating in a far safer space now than their counterparts north of the border — in what might be considered the most dangerous point of this entire pandemic.

It's exceedingly unlikely that the vaccine will be available to players and staff members of the seven Canadian teams before the end of the season, let alone the playoffs. While teams in the United States continue to open their doors to fans, Canadian-based franchises must operate under even a greater abundance of caution in order to complete their seasons.

It's why it may be just as likely than not that the NHL looks to last year's solution to help Canadian markets reach the finish line. 

Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman was first to hint toward the possibility of the NHL engineering another bubble or bubbles to complete portions, if not what's left of the NHL season. As a non-starter in discussions surrounding the return to play last offseason, it will be an extremely delicate issue if ultimately tabled, especially if involving players who have received the all-important jab.

It would only be under the guise of "fairness" if implemented league-wide, but if the situation continues to spiral in Canadian markets with cases on the rise, lockdown measures being issued, and not enough vaccines being administered to stymie the spread, it seems like a reasonable solution for the North Division, if not a critical one. 

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There is still a month left of the regular season, or about a third of the remaining games under this condensed schedule. How Canadian teams navigate the next few weeks with regard to the continued challenges presented by COVID-19 will ultimately determine the course of action once the postseason is set to begin.   

But as the walls seem to close in quickly as Canadians fall behind in the race to vaccinate, it seems obvious that extreme measures will need to be taken in order to protect what is big business, but at the same time something that's nothing more than a privilege in pandemic times.  

How the story ultimately ends in the North wasn't to involve the Canucks, a team which had nothing more than inconsequential games remaining on the schedule as a clear non-factor for postseason positioning in the division. 

For that, the NHL is extremely fortunate.

However, if the league fails to heed to this reminder of a worsening situation and a clear public health divide between organizations based on proximity on either side of the border, a situation beyond the current one, which is oh-so close to being the worst-case scenario, could threaten a fair completion of this season.  

Not to mention, put more lives at risk.

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