NHL’s North Division a ‘unique opportunity,’ but not expected to stay

The NHL’s return Wednesday evening brings back some semblance of normalcy for hockey fans, though as we all know, things are still far from business as usual.

In order to significantly reduce travel and abide by ongoing border restrictions and corresponding quarantine protocols, the NHL temporarily realigned its four divisions and created an all-Canadian group known as the North Division for its upcoming 56-game 2020-21 season.

A necessary alteration urged by COVID-19 protocols, the idea of an Canada-wide division has garnered plenty of excitement.

Asked during an appearance on Sportsnet 590 The Fan’s Good Show whether there was any talk of making the North Division a more permanent fixture beyond this season, NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr cautioned that those aren’t conversations that are being had.

“So far, there’s been no real thought about it on any organized basis. Certainly, no discussion with the NHL about it,” Fehr said.

“A lot of the history of the NHL involves rivalries … which are cross-border. So, that would be a big lift if we ever got to that point. That said, however we got here — and it’s sad that we are — it’s a unique opportunity to see some repeated matchups,” he said. “And my guess is, given the frequency with which they’re going to play one another, you’re going to see some really intense games — and that’s going to be good for everybody.”

In Canada, that means 10 Battles of Alberta, a revival of the historic Toronto-Montreal rivalry, and a 116-day contest to see who’s crowned Canada’s best club. It also means four Canadian teams are guaranteed playoff berths, and we’ll have two rounds of all-Canadian post-season hockey this spring.

Fehr said the entire season will be a learning opportunity, but permeant changes are unlikely.

“Like we do after any season, people will sit down and review and look at it,” said Fehr. “But I think the expectation is that we’ll go back to a much more traditional, if not the traditional, setup next year. But we’ll see.”