The NHL has told the Canadian government that it needs a response by June 1 on the coronavirus-related border travel issue related to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“The talks are ongoing. We told them we really need to know by the end of the first round, and that’s around June 1st. That’s pretty much the date we talked to them about and we need to know one way or another, “Steve Mayer, chief content officer of the NHL, told ESPN on Friday.
The first two rounds of the playoffs will be played in each of the four realigned divisions created for the 2020-21 season, including the all-Canadian Northern division. In the third round, the last four teams play against each other. Currently, US teams are prohibited from playing in Canada without mandatory quarantines, which would not be possible in the postseason calendar. The remaining only Canadian team would either travel across the border in the semifinals against a U.S. opponent, or instead of their home games in Canada, be housed in a U.S. arena for the semifinals (and the final, if any, as it progresses)
The last meeting between the NHL and the Canadian government took place last Friday when NHL government officials came up with a list of questions that should be answered before the next meeting.
Mayer said the NHL was in talks with some NHL arenas in the United States about housing a Canadian team. There are non-playoff teams in these arenas. Fans are currently not allowed in home games for Canadian teams, while any US team was allowed to have fans with limited capacity in their arena. In theory, the Canadian teams would let fans play home games in neutral US arenas.
The end of the first round could also facilitate negotiations with the Canadian government. The North Division playoff field spans four provinces: Edmonton (Alberta) plays against Winnipeg (Manitoba) and Toronto (Ontario) plays against Montreal (Quebec). “Pretty soon there will be two. So if someone is on the fence and this province disappears, it could be easier,” said Mayer.
The NHL feels the Canadian government could get an exemption for travel based on how strict their COVID protocols have been this season and how more and more players and team members are being vaccinated. To encourage the latter, the NHL announced this month that COVID restrictions on US teams will be eased once 85% of a tour group is fully vaccinated. This would mean relaxing social distancing guidelines within team settings and eliminating the need for PCR testing on non-working days.
Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital who has consulted with the NHLPA, told ESPN last month that it was not about “public health” or “player safety” but “optics” for the Canadian government .
“These American teams have exquisite resources: private jet flying, team security protocols,” he said. “This poses no risk to the general public. Let us be clear here. This poses no risk to the players or the support staff involved. This would be an ethical and visual issue.”
Mayer said the NHL would ease concerns about “bubbly levels we just have to promise” if teams are allowed to travel to and from Canada. While the guidelines likely wouldn’t reach the 2020 NHL postseason bubbles lockdown measures in Toronto and Edmonton, they would separate both teams from the general public.
An NHL source told ESPN this week that the league expects “a positive resolution” to the border problem before the third round of the playoffs, Mayer reiterated.
“We’re pretty confident. We had a good conversation with them. We’re not there yet, but they haven’t said no,” he said.