NHL postpones one game for COVID issues, nine others due to Canadian attendance rules

An empty Bell Centre is shown in Montreal, Thursday, December 16, 2021, ahead of an NHL hockey game between the Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers. (Graham Hughes/CP)

The NHL has postponed a total of 10 additional games, one being for COVID-19-related issues and nine others due to Canadian attendance restrictions, the league announced Tuesday.

Wednesday’s contest between the New York Islanders and Detroit Red Wings was the game delayed due to COVID-19.

The Ottawa Senators, Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets, Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs all saw at least one of their games affected by the rescheduling decision.

The postponements impacting games played in Canadian cities comes amid a series of measures put in place by local governments, aimed at stemming the dramatic surge of COVID-19 cases seen across the country, which placed limits on how many fans could be in attendance in the arena.

“We have always had the issue of differing rules in different jurisdictions, so it’s not a new challenge,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an email to The Associated Press on Tuesday, hours before play resumed after an extended holiday break. “(We are) navigating choppy waters the best we can.”

The NFL and NBA can swiftly move to adopt shorter isolation periods for those who test positive for the coronavirus in accordance with new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the two leagues also can consider not testing asymptomatic, vaccinated players.

The CDC recommendation to trim quarantine time from 10 to five days prompted an NHL review of its virus protocols. But there is little evidence Canada is ready to move like the U.S. toward looser rules as provinces clamp down on crowd sizes and impose additional restrictions.

“It’s not in the mind of the state or the population and especially not in the mind of the health field workers,” said University of Ottawa professor Gilles LeVasseur, who specializes in U.S.-Canada relations. “Right now it’s more, `Let’s protect, let’s secure and let’s close in and let’s do another confinement.’ … There is not that mentality of saying that it’s part of us, it’s part of who we are and let’s live with it.”

That path in the U.S., even among other sports leagues, is causing some frustration among hockey players who would like to see the NHL relax some protocols, most notably reducing mandated absences from 10 days for those with COVID-19 symptoms.

“It seems like it’s always Canada that’s the reason that a lot of things don’t happen, so I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do that,” Tampa Bay Lightning forward and NHL Players Association representative Alex Killorn said. “But it seems reasonable that we would do that and implement it as soon as possible.”

In delaying the games, the league could generate more revenue at a later date when bigger audiences become a possibility, though given the unpredictability of the pandemic, it remains to be seen whether or not that will come to fruition before season’s end.

Ontario was the first provincial government to announce a capacity limit for NHL or NBA teams this season, capping the attendance for indoor venues like Scotiabank Arena, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Canadian Tire Centre, home of the Ottawa Senators, at 50 per cent.

“This measure is being taken to reduce opportunities for close contact in high-risk indoor settings with large crowds and when masks are not always worn,” the Ontario government said in a media release when announcing the rules.

That mid-December decision was followed shortly by a request from Quebec’s health officials which saw the Canadiens suspend the hosting of fans in the Bell Centre, marking the strongest measure so far of its kind taken by a province that has an NHL team.

Shortly after the game Montreal played in an empty arena, evoking memories of the pandemic’s earlier days, the province announced a 50 per cent capacity limit for indoor venues with 1,000 or more people going forward, but increasing case counts led to a ruling that no spectators would be allowed to attend sports events as of Dec. 20.

British Columbia took the same 50 per-cent limit approach, saying the rule would remain in effect until at least Jan. 31.

The Canadiens adopted an optimistic tone at the time of Quebec’s 50 per-cent ruling about the future of hosting fans in Montreal, noting the franchise had “obtained assurances” that, beginning with games in January, the organization will return to “a partial capacity scenario and be able to host fans once more.”

With four home games, spanning Jan. 4 to Jan. 10, affected by Tuesday’s postponements, it remains to be seen how soon fans will be making their Bell Centre return.

In Manitoba, the Winnipeg Jets initially attempted to carry on with hosting fans at 100 per cent capacity, despite the prevalence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, noting a high degree of safety-measure compliance by fans who attended games. Days later, the Manitoba government implemented similar limits to large gatherings as Quebec, causing the Jets to announce that no fans would be attending games until at least Jan. 11.

Alberta, the last province which hosts NHL teams to adopt capacity limits, implemented the same 50 per cent restriction on venues which host 1,000 people or more as Ontario, B.C. and Quebec did on Dec. 21.

The divergent timelines for when policies came into effect stems from provinces, not the federal government, being responsible for making capacity rules, underscoring the logistical challenges of coming up with a unified approach in how to best handle playing NHL games in Canada amid the pandemic.

Capacity in Canadian arenas slowly went up in provinces across the country over the summer and fall, but rising case counts and the emergence of the Omicron variant put the discourse over how to host fans safely back in the spotlight.

The NHL now has had a total of 80 games postponed this season.

The list of games postponed for attendance reasons

Friday, Dec. 31

Pittsburgh @ Ottawa

Winnipeg @ Calgary

Monday, Jan. 3

Carolina @ Toronto

Tuesday, Jan. 4

Washington @ Montreal

Thursday, Jan. 6

Toronto @ Montreal

Saturday, Jan. 8

Buffalo @ Montreal

Seattle @ Winnipeg

Monday, Jan. 10

Columbus @ Montreal

Minnesota @ Winnipeg

— With files from The Associated Press.

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