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Enthusiasm, intrigue set the table for an NHL season unlike any other

Toronto Maple Leafs players face off at the beginning of first period Blue versus White scrimmage action as part of training camp in Toronto on Saturday, January 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

In 2021, the promise of fresh ice and a fresh NHL schedule comes with no less excitement or anticipation than it usually would.

But this season of our dreams in the Great White North also looms as a Great Unknown.

We are not just talking about who will surprise and disappoint, which stars will shine brightest and which teams will assert themselves as contenders. We are not even talking about who will emerge from the dogpile of expectations and emotions in the realigned all-Canadian North Division to grab a playoff spot.

No, the entire enterprise is subject to some degree of doubt as the new NHL season dawns amid a deepening pandemic. Gary Bettman acknowledged the heightened risk during a tone-setting press conference this week and said he hoped his league would find a way to complete the campaign in exciting fashion in order to get back to something closer to normal in the fall.

Included among the opening slate of five games is the Tampa Bay Lightning raising their Stanley Cup banner inside an empty Amalie Arena before facing the Chicago Blackhawks; the Toronto Maple Leafs hosting the Montreal Canadiens one day after a stay-at-home order was issued by the Ontario government; and the Vancouver Canucks juggling their lineup because of COVID-related absences for J.T. Miller and Jordie Benn prior to starting in Edmonton.

This would have been called chaos in the sporting world we knew before March 2020. Today it is just Wednesday.

The other North American sports leagues have all been forced to reschedule games and realign expectations, and the NHL will take every precaution it can to avoid facing the same fate. But the Denver Broncos were forced to start a backup wide receiver at quarterback and the Philadelphia 76ers recently used Dwight Howard at point guard and, well …

“It’s going to happen in all the leagues,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning told Sportsnet 650 on Tuesday night.

At least NHL teams have been armed with four- to six-player taxi squads that keep extra options at the ready. That will help. However, there’s not much that can be done once an outbreak hits like the one that infected 17 Dallas Stars players and has forced at least their first three regular-season games to be rescheduled.

Incredibly, this season of completely intra-divisional play sees games scheduled each of the 116 days it spans. If the health and safety protocols can hold up, if the walls don’t cave in with COVID-19 still spreading rapidly through the general population, this could be a year long remembered, even though it’s unlikely to include many fans watching live.

Only Florida, Arizona and Dallas will be able to sell tickets initially, and they will be kept to a severely limited capacity. Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk has been pushing a plan for 6,000 fans at Canadian Tire Centre, but it seems extremely unlikely that any of the provincial governments will loosen regulations after the lengthy approval process required to cement them.

“Those aren’t the conversations that we’re having at this time,” said Leafs president Brendan Shanahan. “We look forward to the day that (fans) are in the arena. Quite frankly, one of the greatest points about the fact that when our fans are in the arena, the more important point is it’s a reflection that our community as a whole must be doing a whole lot better to have that.”

That should not dampen the enthusiasm in Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton or Toronto. In these cities and among fanbases where the game is cherished this sets up as a once-in-a-lifetime 56-game spectacle.

But the intrigue doesn’t stop at our closed border.

You have three top-tier Stanley Cup contenders in Colorado, Vegas and St. Louis playing out of the realigned West Division, plus Pittsburgh, Washington, Boston and Philadelphia among those contesting the East. The Central now includes both of last year’s Stanley Cup finalists — Dallas and Tampa — plus Columbus, Nashville and Carolina.

There will be several skilled rookies populating rosters — including Alexis Lafrenière and Tim Stützle with the accent grave and umlaut used to mark their heritage printed across Rangers and Senators sweaters — plus world junior star Trevor Zegras in Anaheim and Kirill Kaprizov in Minnesota, among others.

There are all of the ingredients needed to cook up a tasty stew.

That’s assuming, of course, they can pull this off as intended. The NHL had a remarkable finish to 2019-20 inside bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton, where no positives were confirmed among the 33,000-plus tests conducted.

It required amazing buy-in that couldn’t reasonably be replicated across six months of a new year.

“I believe our players made an incredible sacrifice over the summer and into the fall, being away from family and friends in some cases more than two months,” said Bettman. “I repeatedly said to (NHLPA executive director) Don Fehr that I’m not going to even ask you to do that (again) because it wouldn’t be right and there’s no expectation that you could expect all of our players and supporting personnel to do that. So that was the starting point, and frankly the ending point.”

So here we are at the beginning of an NHL season unlike any that has ever come before it.

There’s no telling what’s going to happen, but there’s a universal hope that it plays out as safely as possible.