The Montreal Canadiens head into Game Two of the North Division Finals on Friday with a chance to go up 2-0 in the series on the Winnipeg Jets. In fact, the series could be over as early as early as Monday if the Habs continue to win. There might be just one business day left between now and Montreal advancing to the NHL’s postseason final four. Yet, they still have no idea whether or not they will be playing any home games beyond that point.
Reporting for Sportsnet late last night, David Morassutti relays word from Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly that the league and the Canadian government still do not have any agreement on an exception to current border policies. With Canada behind the United States in Coronavirus vaccinations, the country and each of the provinces still have strict border restrictions and tight health regulations. Those are not going away any time soon, so if the NHL wants Montreal or Winnipeg to be able to host home games in the next round or two, they need to negotiate an exception to the rules. Daly notes that conversations with Canadian officials are ongoing and “increasing in frequency” and there is an understanding that the NHL needs a decision as soon as possible. However, Canada is already late on a ruling; the NHL had previously announced that they hoped to have the border exception hammered out by the end of the first round.
Morassutti reports that what is being discussed is a “national interest exemption” that would allow both NHL and MLB teams – with the Toronto Blue Jays currently calling the U.S. home – to cross the border without facing quarantine time. However, a new set of policies would need to be put in place to safeguard against COVID transmission from these visitors and public health officials would need to approve. Daly feels confident that a solution can be reached soon, but phrases like “rigorous due diligence” from the Canadian side cast some doubt on just how quickly this can be done. With the next round arriving no later than June 13, will “soon” be soon enough for the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
If no deal is reached, meaning American clubs cannot cross the border and the Canadian champ cannot return once they cross into the U.S. either, the alternative would be that the North Division winner would have to adopt a home south of the border for their remaining games. In all likelihood, these plans have already been made in the event that a border exception is not reached in time. However, there has been no indication by the NHL of what this Plan B might be. The closest American cities to Montreal that could host NHL postseason play include Portland, ME, Manchester, NH, and Rochester or Syracuse, NY, all current or former AHL homes. Boston is the closest NHL city, but seems unlikely due to the Bruins’ potential inclusion in the next round. Buffalo would likely be the next-best choice. As for Winnipeg, options are few and far between. The club is located very close to Grand Forks, ND, home of the University of North Dakota and a location that was considered as hub city for the 2020 postseason. However, it likely isn’t an ideal spot for the NHL. Minneapolis is the only NHL city even remotely close for the Jets, though Seattle has also been mentioned as possibility.
There is still a lot of unknowns about this situation and time is running out. Hopefully the Canadian government can work with the NHL to come to a quick solution on an amended border policy. If not, the North Division champ will face the disadvantage of playing in a strange city as their reward for advancing on in the postseason.