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New year, new divisions, new rules: How the NHL is adapting to COVID-19

(AP Photo / Jeff Toates)

As the NHL prepares for its first regular season of the COVID-19 pandemic, the league’s players will have to quickly become accustomed to a new normal of sorts in 2021.

Similar to the NFL and the NBA season that came/started before them, the NHL’s 31 teams will have plenty of protocols to read up on before the 2021 schedule starts on January 13, 2021, and will have an entirely new structure to get used to, as well.

Those 31 teams were split into four newly-named (and newly-sponsored) divisions for the new year, which were realigned for 2021 due to travel restrictions created by COVID-19.

Each of the league’s seven Canadian teams (the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks, and Winnipeg Jets) will play in the North Division will occupy the NHL’s new “Scotia NHL North Division.”

Meanwhile, eight teams will take up residence in the league’s other three divisions as follows:

  • Honda NHL West Division: Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Colorado Avalanche, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild, San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues, Vegas Golden Knights
  • Discover NHL Central Division: Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning
  • MassMutual NHL East Division: Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals

Every team will play a 56-game schedule spanning teams only in their division, and those that qualify for the postseason will have to deal with an adjusted playoff format as a result of the realignment, as well.

According to the NHL, the first two rounds of the playoffs will now “be intradivisional, with the first-place team playing the fourth-place team and the second-place team facing the third-place team in the first round.”

After the second round, “the four teams that advance from the second round to the Semifinal Round will be seeded by their points total in the regular season (No. 1 vs. No. 4; No. 2 vs. No. 3).”

As teams maneuver through the new schedules, they will also have to manage a multitude of COVID-19-related protocols. Those include bans on carpooling to games, roommates in hotels during road trips, and excursions to restaurants, bars, clubs, and other external venues while on the road.

>>RELATED: How the NBA is adjusting the 2020-2021 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic

When it comes time for game prep, visiting teams will only be allowed to use either the home team’s home rinks or practice rinks, and no members of the public will be allowed to watch practices.

Coaches will have to wear masks on the bench during games and owners can’t have face-to-face meetings with coaches or players.

Even after all of those rules, the league still has to worry about its testing policies, and what to do if someone on a team tests positive for COVID-19.

Per the NHL, players that test positive and are symptomatic “shall not be subject to further confirmatory testing under this Protocol. Such individual’s COVID-19 positive status will be considered confirmed if, in the opinion of the treating physician(s), there is no basis to doubt the individual’s COVID-19 positive status. These individuals shall be required to isolate until medical clearance is obtained. The Club Physician shall immediately coordinate contact tracing with their infectious disease consultant and local health authority.”

Symptomatic players that test negative, meaning “individuals who develop infectious respiratory symptoms, but who test negative for COVID-19, shall have their clinical care and clearance managed by the Club Physician in consultation with the Club’s infectious disease expert, and they shall continue to be monitored with daily PCR testing.”

Lastly, asymptomatic players that have an initial positive test will have to isolate and undergo contact tracing, and another test will be conducted 24 hours later to confirm the result.

If the player tests negative on the confirmatory test, the player would still have to register two more negatives 24 hours apart to return to play. Any positive test in that timespan would require the player to stay isolated and continue their contact tracing.

>>RELATED: How the NFL adapted the 2020 season due to COVID-19

Unfortunately for the NHL, issues arose before games could even begin, with an outbreak within the Dallas Stars organization serving as the first real sign of trouble in 2021.

The league announced on January 8 that six players and two staff members tested positive for COVID-19, and the start of the team’s regular season would not start before January 19.

“Those individuals are self-isolating and following CDC and League protocols. As a result of the positive tests, and as an appropriate precaution, the team’s training facilities have been closed, effective immediately, and will remain closed for several days while further daily testing and contact tracing is conducted,” the NHL said in a statement. “The League is in the process of reviewing and revising the Stars’ regular season schedule with the expectation that the team will not open its 2020-21 season earlier than Tuesday, January 19.”

The Columbus Blue Jackets saw multiple players miss practice due to COVID-19 protocols, while the Pittsburgh Penguins were forced to cancel a practice of their own for the same reason.

The news came as the NBA dealt with its own COVID-19-related issues, as Philadelphia 76ers guard Seth Curry tested positive for the virus on the same day he was spotted on the team’s bench during a game against the Brooklyn Nets.

>>RELATED: How COVID-19 created the most unique November sports weekend of all time

The 2021 season is guaranteed to be anything but the usual, with a lack of fans in arenas for at least a majority of the season and plenty of unique playoff matchups created as a result of the new divisions and schedules.

But, one thing is guaranteed: the NHL appears to be doing the best it can to pull off a full regular season amid a pandemic, and only time will tell whether or not the league can finish the job in 2021.

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