Montreal Alouettes president Mario Cecchini is cautiously optimistic the 2021 CFL season will begin on time after a key decision by the Quebec government.
Quebec announced Tuesday indoor venues will be able to start hosting up to 2,500 patrons, beginning May 28. The provincial curfew is also slated to be lifted that day.
So if the Montreal Canadiens’ opening-round NHL playoff series with the Toronto Maple Leafs goes to a sixth game, 2,500 fans will be allowed into the Bell Centre on May 29. That would make up roughly 12 per cent of the arena’s capacity.
"It’s a good first step," Cecchini said Wednesday. "It’s significant in terms of change on how they managed it and if they’re ready to go this far, I think it bodes extremely well for us to have much more than 2,500 people in September.
"We have to be happy with that first step. Hopefully things don’t go south (and) people still do the right things … that’s just good news for us absolutely."
The CFL didn’t play in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It had originally planned to open a full 18-game 2021 season in June but last month pushed back the start to Aug. 5 and shortened the campaign to 14 contests.
Even if the CFL season starts then, the plan is for East Division teams to begin play on the road. The hope is when they return home in September, the COVID-19 situation would be more favourable to having fans in the stands.
That’s important as CFL teams rely heavily upon ticket sales to generate operating revenue.
Ironically, Quebec’s announcement Tuesday came hours after Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer, said allowing fans into NHL playoff games wasn’t under "serious consideration" at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic.
All NHL playoff games in the U.S. have had fans in the stands. This week, both the Alberta and Manitoba governments said they weren’t ready to allow hockey fans to attend playoff games in their provinces, though Alberta Health made an exception for 12 front-line health workers for Wednesday’s game between the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets.
Another positive sign for the CFL came Tuesday when Hamilton owner Bob Young took to Twitter to guarantee that his Tiger-Cats will play this year. Young also joked if the Ticats are the only franchise on the field this year, they should win a Grey Cup.
The Grey Cup game is slated for Dec. 12 at Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field.
But challenges still remain for the CFL to get to that point.
In February, the CFL and CFL Players’ Association submitted their return-to-play protocols to the six provinces where franchises are based — B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec. Upon provincial approval, the protocols will go to the Public Health Agency of Canada — which was examining the league’s return-to-play plan last year when the CFL pulled the plug on its ’20 season.
Once that’s done, the CFL would then have to secure a national interest exemption from the federal cabinet for games to be played.
Two weeks ago, a report said all six provinces with teams in the league had given verbal approval to the CFL’s return-to-play protocols. But both B.C. and Ontario government officials have denied having given any sort of approval to the league’s plans.
And now it seems neither has Alberta. When asked if that province had provided verbal approval of CFL protocols, Tom McMillan, the assistant director, communications for Alberta Health, said, "While we have offered preliminary support, no official approval of return-to-play protocols or exemptions have been granted, to date."
"We have been in contact with the CFL and generally support a safe return to play when it is safe to do so," he said in an email. "Right now, our focus is bending the curve.
"We will keep Albertans updated if any decisions are made. We all miss football and so many other outdoor activities. The best thing we can all do is to get the vaccine and help stop the spread of COVID-19."
Lisa MacLeod, Ontario’s Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, said last week her government hadn’t verbally approved the CFL protocols. And the day after a second report surfaced again stating all six provinces had done so, a member of MacLeod’s office reiterated the minister was standing by her previous statements.
That’s not a surprise as the three cities where the province’s three CFL franchises are based — Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa — must first agree to the protocols. And at least one suggested late Tuesday it has yet to see the CFL’s return-to-play plans.
"Toronto Public Health (TPH) has been working closely with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health of Ontario for return to play of professional sports in the City of Toronto," Dr. Vinita Dubey, Toronto’s associate medical officer of health, said in an email. "At this time, TPH is aware that the Canadian Football League has prepared return-to-play protocols that have been shared at the provincial level.
"We anticipate that we will become engaged in reviewing these protocols as this process evolves."
Among MLSE’s sports properties is the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts.
Ottawa and Hamilton health officials didn’t immediately respond to questions regarding CFL protocols. Neither did those in Saskatchewan and Quebec, although Cecchini said government officials in his province have been very supportive of both the return-to-play protocols as well as how the Alouettes would handle having fans at Molson Stadium, an outdoor facility
"They were totally welcome with no major flaws at all," Cecchini said. "But at the same time they are encouraging us to always look at other things, be it because technology is better or there’s a different way of doing things.
"It’s very important for us not to have another outbreak whatsoever. The protection of our players and everyone else is paramount. We’re just trying to understand more of what’s needed."
Manitoba’s health department said it has provided written approval of the CFL’s return-to-play protocols but added "it is too early to say what a 2021 CFL season will look like."
"Currently in Manitoba, addressing the third wave of COVID requires us all to do our part, both in adhering to the orders, but also taking any additional steps we can to reduce contacts and the potential for transmission," it said in a statement. "This means staying home as much as possible, reducing the number of contacts we have, wearing masks when we are around others from outside our household, even outside and getting vaccinated."