The federal government is poised to approve a travel exemption for the Stanley Cup playoffs that would allow U.S. teams to enter Canada if they adhere to a strict regimen of daily COVID-19 testing and remain in a bubble that includes team hotels and the arena.
Multiple federal sources say the exemption would let the winner of the NHL’s all-Canadian division and its U.S. opponent cross the border without quarantine during the Stanley Cup semifinals and finals. A formal announcement could come as soon as this week.
Initial details of the potential travel exemption were first reported by TSN and The Canadian Press.
Federal sources told CBC News all provinces with Canadian teams still competing in the playoffs have signed off on the plan. It still needs the green light from federal health officials before it lands on the desk of federal Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino for final approval.
CBC News is not naming the sources because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
In an email to The Canadian Press, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said, “It’s a work in progress.”
A federal source insists the health risk to the Canadian public is low. Vaccination rates are high among NHL players and the travelling parties that accompany teams. There will be frequent testing requirements of all players and the teams will be forced to bubble between team hotels and the rinks when in Canada.
These rules are in addition to the other public health measures the NHL has imposed on teams for the duration of the season.
The Toronto Maple Leafs host the Montreal Canadiens Monday night in a series-deciding Game 7. Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced Monday that 550 fully vaccinated health-care workers would be allowed to attend the game.
The winner of that game will play the Winnipeg Jets in the North Division final. The winner of that series will face one of three U.S. division winners in the league semifinals. The two semifinal winners will square off for the Stanley Cup.
If approved, this would mark the first time regular cross-border travel occurs in the NHL amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Last summer, the NHL concluded its season with hubs in Toronto and Edmonton, with all U.S. teams crossing the border just once before departing.
NHL personnel were granted a special dispensation before this year’s trade deadline in April to serve only a seven-day quarantine. The federal government also issued an exemption to the mandatory 14-day quarantine period for NHL players and team staff to return to Canada for training camp under “national interest grounds” in December.
Relocating to U.S. also considered by league
The NHL put all seven Canadian teams in one division, and they exclusively played each other to avoid cross-border travel this season.
The league had said it was considering having the Canadian division winner relocate to the U.S. for the final two rounds if it could not secure approval from the government.
In a best-of-seven playoff series, one team traditionally hosts games 1, 2, 5 and 7 and the other hosts games 3, 4 and 6.
Other Canadian professional sports teams have had to relocate to the U.S. to avoid cross-border travel.
Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays started their season playing home games in Dunedin, Fla., and will call Buffalo, N.Y., home starting on Tuesday.
Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC, CF Montreal and Vancouver Whitecaps have relocated to Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Sandy, Utah, respectively.
Major League Rugby’s Toronto Arrows are now based in Marietta, Ga., while the NBA’s Toronto Raptors recently completed their season in Tampa, Fla.
In the NHL, U.S. teams have been allowed to have crowds throughout the playoffs. The Habs became the first Canadian team to host a crowd on Saturday when 2,500 fans watched them beat the Leafs in overtime.
That crowd was significantly smaller than those permitted in most U.S. venues.