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Habs' assistant Luke Richardson says an all-Canadian division would be entertaining and competitive

2015 Files: Luke Richardson watches from the bench  as head coach of the  Binghamton Senators
2015 Files: Luke Richardson watches from the bench as head coach of the Binghamton Senators

Luke Richardson never gets tired of Hockey Night in Canada.

During a National Hockey League playing career that spanned more than 20 years, the Montreal Canadiens assistant coach had a chance to suit up for three teams north of the border, including the Toronto Maple Leafs twice and the Edmonton Oilers for six seasons before finishing with the Ottawa Senators in 2008-09. He then moved into a coaching role.

As the league studies its options for a safe return to start the 2020-21 campaign and to minimize the threat of the novel coronavirus, Richardson is on board if the NHL decides it’s best to have an all-Canadian division whenever a schedule is finalized.

The 51-year-old Richardson played two seasons in the old Smythe Division, which included the Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks, Winnipeg Jets and the Oilers, until the NHL decided to change names and re-align for the 1993-94 campaign.

Those teams used to face each other seven times a year, and he looked forward to facing Canadian rivals on a consistent basis.

“Even the Battle of Alberta when I was with Edmonton and we’d play Calgary. Especially my first year (in Edmonton) when we there and we were both pretty good teams and you’re really fighting for something,” Richardson told reporters on a Zoom call from his Ottawa home Tuesday.

“You’d look at the standings and that win or loss would really mean something because you were either moving up or you were moving someone down. It means that little bit extra because there’s bragging rights. It’s not just within the team. You’d walk around town and people would be like, ‘Great game and I hate those Calgary Flames.’ Everybody is invested and it makes it more exciting.”

The NHL may have no choice but to place the Canucks, Flames, Oilers, Jets, Leafs, Habs and Senators in one division this season because of restrictions on crossing the U.S.-Canada border. It remains closed to all non-essential travel and those who come to Canada from the U.S. must quarantine for 14 days.

Those restrictions aren’t showing signs of lifting soon and, as a result, the National Basketball Association’s Toronto Raptors will be based in Tampa, Fla., until further notice.

“Ultimately the decisions around the border will be made in the best interests of Canadians,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told CBC Radio’s The Current on Tuesday morning. “Until the virus is significantly more under control everywhere around the world, we’re not going to be releasing the restrictions at the border,”

There’s no question television networks wouldn’t have any issues with an all-Canadian division and the teams are willing to do whatever is necessary to get the season under way.

Richardson believes it would be exciting for everybody.

“A great example is just a Saturday night with the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens,” said Richardson, who will head into his third season on Claude Julien’s staff with the Habs. “How much better can you get? I remember it as a player in that situation and as a coach. It’s very exciting.

“Who knows? I know nothing has been determined yet, but that would definitely be exciting. We’re open to anything to get back to hockey. I think it would be an extremely competitive division and that would  be something. It’s the NHL, it’s the best league in the world, but, if there’s a Canadian division, there will definitely be some bragging rights to fight for. It will make all the games even more intense and it would be fun to see.”

Nobody will ever complain about the Canadian teams facing each other too often. Depending on the length of the season, the seven teams could see each other as many as seven or eight times. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t be able to have fans in the building.

There has even been a suggestion that, if the Canadian teams go from East to West or vice-versa, they’d play more than one game in the city during each visiting. For example, the Leafs could land in Vancouver on Sunday, then face the Canucks on Tuesday and Thursday before heading to another Western Canadian city.

“It rekindles the rivalries, but I think they’re still there,” Richardson said. “I know with Montreal, if we go to Edmonton or Vancouver, there’s still a lot of transplanted people that are there in Habs jerseys and cheering us. Sometimes when we score, we’re not sure if it’s home game or away game.

“It’ll give that extra spark if you’re in the same division and you’re fighting for playoff spots and seeding. The fans are going to love it. The people are going to eat it up and it would definitely be exciting for everybody.”

Nobody is sure when the season will start. As it stands, the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association have yet to reach an agreement that both sides can stomach and set a date for training camp.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has asked NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr to make changes to the collective agreement that was signed four months ago so the league can get about $300 million in savings.

One way or another, it sure feels like we’ll be hearing a lot more of ‘Oh Canada’ down the road.

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Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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