The NHL expects negotiations with the Canadian government regarding travel across the border could extend through the opening rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"It's going to be down to the wire," a source with knowledge of the talks told ESPN, indicating a decision on the border may not be made until the first week in June.
The Stanley Cup playoffs are scheduled to begin in mid-May. The opening two rounds feature teams playing within their divisions. Sources told ESPN that the NHL does not currently expect to implement playoff bubbles for the first two rounds, as it did last summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But in June, travel gets complicated. Each division winner advances to make up the final four teams, which will be re-seeded based on regular-season record. That will include the champion of the all-Canadian North Division. Currently, U.S. teams would be prohibited from playing in Canada without mandatory quarantines that would be impossible within the postseason calendar, which will be formatted in the traditional 2-2-1-1-1 home game schedule.
Canada has a 14-day quarantine for anyone who enters the country, although it did cut it down to seven days for NHL players who were traded to a North Division team this season.
"If we can't travel in Canada, either as among the provinces or from the U.S. to Canada and back, we'll make whatever adjustments we have to do to get the playoffs completed. But obviously, as it has been, it's wildly unpredictable," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday.
There are two scenarios being discussed regarding the North Division champion. The first is that negotiations with the Canadian government -- led by NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly -- result in the country giving teams a special dispensation to travel back and forth across the border for their playoff series. The second is that the Canadian government does not allow that dispensation, and the North Division champion would be relocated to a U.S. city for the semifinal round and, should it advance, the Stanley Cup Final.
A source told ESPN the Canadian team's U.S. home will not be tied to the franchise's location in Canada. For example, there's been heavy speculation that the Toronto Maple Leafs would play their games in Buffalo, should they advance. Instead, the North Division champion's U.S. home would be based on the geographic location of the team's opponent in each round, to cut down on travel costs.
The NHL doesn't need much time to execute a plan on a U.S. site for a Canadian team in the U.S. Due to a lack of schedule inventory, several NHL arenas would be options for a Canadian team to set up shop. A source told ESPN that the NHL could turn around one of those U.S. sites for a Canadian team in around 10 days -- enabling them extra time to work with the Canadian government on the border issue, down to the aforementioned wire.
"Where we play is going to depend on COVID, obviously. We hope to keep everybody healthy. And it's going to depend on government regulations in terms of where we're going to be able to travel our players and our teams and where we can't," Bettman said.
Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist at Toronto General Hospital who has consulted with the NHLPA, said Canada is "not messing around" on the border issue at the moment, as the nation is facing a third wave of COVID-19. Two months ago, Canada started implementing quarantine hotels for international flights landing in the nation, and this week it stopped accepting flights from India and Pakistan as they experienced another COVID wave.
From a sports perspective, the Toronto Blue Jays have played their home games in Dunedin, Florida, and are expected to play more of them at their minor league affiliate's park in Buffalo, with an eye toward returning to Rogers Centre later in 2021.
"I don't think the country will budge on border measures until we're in the clear. When there are widespread vaccinations, hospitals are decompressed and community rates of COVID-19 transmission are significantly lower than where they are now," Bogoch said. "However, these aren't everyday travelers. This is a professional sports league with extensive resources."
Bogoch believes the decision on the North Division champion traveling in and out of Canada is less about COVID-19 safety than it is about optics.
"It's not about player health. It's not about public safety. It would be about optics and ethics. You have the capability to have the American teams vaccinated. Everyone 16 and up in the U.S. is eligible for the vaccine right now. And these American teams have exquisite amounts of resources at their disposal: flying on private jets, safety protocols in place for teams," he said. "This does not pose a risk to the general public, let's be clear here. This does not pose a risk to the players or the ancillary personnel involved. This would be an ethics and optics issue."