TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada has always wanted more National Hockey League teams and starting on Saturday will have 24 as the sport returns from a COVID-19 forced hiatus in the country regarded as its spiritual home.
The NHL has long shown a preference for United States expansion but opted for the safety of two hub cities in the Great White North where the pandemic is widely contained over the U.S. which has seen a surge in positive cases.
The Canada/U.S. border remains closed to non-essential travel but for Canadians there are few things more indispensable than hockey.
There was of course nothing sentimental about the NHL’s decision to huddle in Canada but rather a calculated move that has proven astute as the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 climbs past 150,000.
Following a four-and-a-half month shutdown, teams have assembled under quarantine bubbles in Toronto (Eastern Conference) and Edmonton (Western Conference), which will also host the best-of-seven Stanley Cup finals scheduled to begin on Sept. 20.
Protective fencing has been constructed around each hotel and arena walling off players for the next two months from the general public.
The NHL has said that approximately 100 security guards and “health ambassadors” will be stationed throughout the downtown Toronto bubble keeping players in and unauthorised people out.
“It is all one big distraction and at the same time, it isn’t,” said Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour after checking into the team hotel. “Once you actually get to the rink, the one time that actually feels normal is when you lace your skates up.”
Action resumes with the top four teams in each conference when the season was halted competing in a round-robin to determine seeding.
The remainder of the clubs will immediately be thrown into do-or-die scenarios facing off in best-of-five qualifying round matchups.
The winners will advance to the Stanley Cup playoffs where four best-of-seven series will decide a Stanley Cup champion.
There will be no spectators at either Toronto or Edmonton but with six games a day available for broadcast there will be enough hockey to satisfy even the most obsessed fan.
When play stopped in March the Boston Bruins were top of the East standings and eight points clear of the Tampa Bay Lightning while reigning Stanley Cup champions St. Louis Blues led the West, two points ahead of the Colorado Avalanche.
The Lightning, looking to atone for last year’s collapse when they were bundled out in the opening round, and Bruins are betting favourites followed by the Avalanche.
But the stars could also be aligning for a Canadian club to finally hoist the famous mug for the first time since 1993.
For hockey-mad Canadians the 27-year drought is a national embarrassment but with six-of-seven Canadian based franchises in the hunt and all the postseason games played north of the border, hope is high the dry spell will end.
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Christian Radnedge
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