Work is underway for a travel exemption that would let the winner of the NHL’s all-Canadian division and an American counterpart cross the border during the third and final rounds of the playoffs.
Two federal government sources say the exemption would let teams still in the Stanley Cup hunt enter Canada for games without having to isolate for 14 days, as is currently required for all non-essential travellers entering the country.
The sources, who were granted anonymity because they aren’t authorized to speak publicly, say the NHL has been working to secure approval from public health authorities in the provinces and cities that still have teams in the playoffs.
Once those signatures are collected, the request will go to federal Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino for final approval.
A league spokesperson said the NHL still is awaiting answers from governments.
In an email to The Canadian Press, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said, “It’s a work in progress.”
The sources emphasized that public health and safety would be the top priority before any approval.
The winner of Monday night’s series-deciding game between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs will play the Winnipeg Jets in the North Division final.
The winner of that series will face one of three American division winners in the league semifinals. The two semifinal winners will square off for the Stanley Cup.
This will mark the first time regular cross-border travel occurs in the NHL during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last summer, the NHL concluded its season with hubs in Toronto and Edmonton, with all American 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.
The league put all seven Canadian teams in one division, and they exclusively played each other to avoid cross-border travel this season.
In a best-of-seven series, one team traditionally hosts Games 1, 2, 5 and 7 and the other hosts Games 3, 4 and 6.
The NHL 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 government.
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.
Canadian pro teams in many leagues outside the NHL have a larger majority, if not a full complement, of rivals in the U.S., making cross-border travel a requirement if they are to play in Canada.
In the NHL, American 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.
—Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press