It has now been well over a year since any American team from any league has played a game in Canada. As a result of ongoing issues from the pandemic, every Canada-based team in every major sport has been forced to alter its plans in recent months.
That matters more to the National Hockey League than any other league, as eight of the NHL’s 31 teams make their home north of the border. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are about to get underway, and the league is still retaining some hope that the Canadian government will finally allow teams to travel back-and-forth between Canada and the United States.
The NHL says it is hoping to hear from the Canadian government about the possibility of relenting on their restrictions by June 1. Steve Mayer, the NHL’s chief content officer, told ESPN,
“The conversations are ongoing. We’ve told them we really do need to know by the end of the first round, and that’s around June 1. That’s pretty much the date that we’ve talked to them about, saying we have to know one way or another.”
The NHL realigned its divisions in advance of the truncated 2020-21 schedule to accommodate for the Canadian teams that were forced to relocate. Teams will only face teams from their own divisions in each of the first two rounds of the playoffs. That includes the North Division, which is comprised entirely of Canadian teams. Those teams have spent an entire season playing one another in Canada without facing any of the other 23 teams based in the US.
The third round calls for the final four teams to face one another regardless of division, which could cause some issues given the current restrictions still being imposed by Canada. Canada’s health protocols require a lengthy quarantine period for anyone traveling to the country, which would be impossible for NHL teams playing on a tight playoff schedule.
So, if the health restrictions are not relaxed, there is a chance the NHL could be forced to relocate any Canadian teams still left in the playoffs to a temporary home in the US for the semifinals or Stanley Cup Finals.
When the two sides last met last week, the Canadian government reportedly gave the NHL a list of questions and concerns to be addressed before their next meeting.
The NHL has already held preliminary talks with a few NHL arenas in the US about the possibility of temporarily housing a Canadian team, if necessary. The arenas in question would not be the homes of any of the teams in this year’s playoff field. While games held in Canada are still being held without fans, any games played in the US would likely allow fans to attend. Every American team in the NHL is already allowing a limited number of fans to buy tickets.
While the first round of the playoffs features teams from four different Canadian provinces, that number will be sliced in half after the first round when two of them are eliminated. Mayer said lowering the number of provinces that would need to be involved may make the problems easier to solve.
In an attempt to incentivize players and teams to get vaccinated, the NHL said this month that the league’s pandemic restrictions would be significantly reduced for any team whose traveling party reaches a vaccination threshold of 85%.
The league has been hopeful that those kinds of health measures will also ease the Canadian government’s concerns, but there is no telling yet whether Canada will actually relent.
There is minimal actual public health risk in letting teams travel back-and-forth from Canada to the US, but the Canadian government is seemingly more concerned about optics at this point. Mayer said that the league thinks they will ultimately strike a deal, as he added,
“We’re pretty confident. The conversations have been good ones with them. We’re not there yet, but they haven’t said, no.”
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