Federal government clears way for North Division winner to cross border

Montreal Canadiens' Brendan Gallagher (11) scores on Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (37) during third period NHL Stanley Cup hockey action in Winnipeg, Wednesday, June 2, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

The federal government will issue a travel exemption to allow the winner of the NHL's all-Canadian North Division and an American counterpart to cross the border during the third and final rounds of the playoffs.

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino's spokesman Alexander Cohen says the decision was made in conjunction with the Public Health Agency of Canada and with approval from the Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and Manitoba governments.

Cohen says the decision comes with significant restrictions and rules to protect the health of both team members and the public.

Those include daily COVID-19 testing, strict quarantines within designated hotels and arenas, and restrictions around who team members can interact with.

Cohen says the government will not hesitate to take further action should it be required.

The Montreal Canadiens and Winnipeg Jets are playing in the North Division final, with the winner to face one of three American division winners in the league semifinals. Montreal leads the series 2-0 with Game 3 scheduled for Sunday night at the Bell Centre.

The North Division champion will face the winner of a series between the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights 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.

"The National Hockey League is very appreciative of the decision by the Canadian government and the federal health officials to allow the Canadian team that advances to the Stanley Cup semifinals and, potentially, the final, to host games in their own rinks," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement.

"As we did during our return to play last August and September in the Edmonton and Toronto bubbles and throughout the 2020-21 regular season, we have again worked closely with (Public Health Agency of Canada), and the provincial and municipal health authorities to develop a series of strict protocols that will protect the safety of all concerned."

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 began calling Buffalo, N.Y., home this week.

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.

The Leafs and Jets followed by allowing about 500 fully vaccinated health-care workers into their next home games.

The Canadian crowds have been significantly smaller than those permitted in most U.S. venues.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 6, 2021.