Ontario gives Maple Leafs, Senators green light to host games

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (34) celebrates his goal during second period NHL hockey action against the Ottawa Senators, in Toronto on Wednesday, October 2, 2019. (Nathan Denette/CP)

The Ontario government has given the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators permission to play home games in the all-Canadian division this season.

Lisa MacLeod, Ontario’s Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Minister, made the announcement Thursday afternoon.

"In consultation with Ontario's Chief Medical officer of Health and with support from local medical officers of health in Ottawa and Toronto, I am pleased to share that both of Ontario's NHL teams, the Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs, will be able to host home games against other Canadian teams in their respective arenas this season," MacLeod said in a statement. "This approval was granted after close scrutiny of the rigorous health and safety protocols that will be adopted to keep players, staff and our communities safe from the spread of COVID-19."

Ontario's approval is the latest after a lengthy back-and-forth between the provinces and the NHL, made complicated by regional COVID-19 situations, regarding the conditions that would be necessary to pull off a Canada-only division.

British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec had already approved the NHL's plan and protocols, leaving Manitoba as the sole province whose approval is now outstanding. Dr. Jazz Atwal, Manitoba's acting deputy chief provincial public health officer, has said he's confident the Winnipeg Jets can play home games this season.

On Wednesday, it was revealed that the Montreal Canadiens would also be able to play home games despite the government's imposition of a curfew designed to curb the rampant spread of COVID-19 in the province.

"The people from the Canadiens have had long discussions with public health," Francois Legault, Quebec's premier, said in a press conference Wednesday evening. "I think Quebecers want ... to see hockey games ...It's done completely safely, and they have the means to pay for that safety."

In Montreal, there will be no fans at games, players and personnel will be tested daily and will not be allowed to visit other people when off the ice. Regulations for Ontario were not made immediately available by the province.

The NHL realigned its divisions for the 2021 season so that the North Division — which features all seven Canadian teams — would not have to cross the U.S.-Canada border, which remains closed to non-essential travel until at least Jan. 21 due to COVID-19.

The season schedule, which is slated to begin on Jan. 13, will see each team play 56 games, down from the usual 82.

The Maple Leafs are scheduled to host the Canadiens, while the Edmonton Oilers are slated to face the visiting Vancouver Canucks on Jan. 13 as part of a five-game schedule on opening night.

The Jets open Jan. 14 against the visiting Calgary Flames, while the Oilers and Canucks meet again in Edmonton.

The Senators start their season Jan. 15 against visiting Toronto, the first of two games in as many days between the Ontario rivals in the nation’s capital.

Baseball-style series will be common as the league attempts to reduce the travel. For example, the Canadiens and Senators each are scheduled to play three straight games in Vancouver in January.

The all-Canadian division has elicited significant excitement from fans, but will likely only be a one-season measure, according to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

"From a league-wide perspective, we are one league," Daly said during a Thursday appearance on Tim and Sid. "We're not a league that exists north of the border and a league that exists south of the border. I think the integration of franchises to create a North American league is where we've always been and where we want to be."

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