It’s been 42 years since the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens last met in the playoffs, but fans are unlikely to lay their eyes on the two bitter rivals in person when they take the ice in their long-awaited post-season reunion.
At least, not in the Maple Leafs’ home arena, where the NHL’s two oldest teams renew hostilities Thursday evening.
Toronto’s home games in the first-round series, which is set to conclude as late as May 31 if a Game 7 is required, will take place entirely under the restrictions of Ontario’s stay-at-home order, which is currently set to run until June 2.
The current restrictions forbid indoor gatherings among people from different households.
“We’ve had every indication that that order will stay in place until the day it is due to expire,” said Toronto Mayor John Tory. “So, this current hockey series is scheduled to be over by then.”
In Montreal, however, the Quebec government plans to lift some of its COVID-19 restrictions on May 29, which will allow indoor venues to host up to 2,500 people.
The loosened rules mean a potential Game 6 at Montreal’s Bell Centre, scheduled for the same day restrictions are lifted, could mark the first time fans are permitted to attend an NHL game in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Leafs last played a home game in front of fans on March 10, 2020, when Toronto downed the Tampa Bay Lightning by a score of 2-1 in front of 19,124 people at Scotiabank Arena.
The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic a day later, on March 11, and the NHL shut down its 2019-20 season on March 12.
NHL teams in the United States, which have not been permitted to enter Canada during the regular season, are routinely playing in front of growing home crowds.
The Carolina Hurricanes beat the Nashville Predators 5-2 on Monday night in front of 12,000 fans, which accounts for 64 per cent of Carolina’s home arena capacity. The state government of North Carolina lifted all mandatory capacity limits and physical distancing requirements on May 14.
Toronto and Montreal last met in the playoffs in 1979, when the Canadiens swept the Maple Leafs 4-0 in the second round, en route to winning the Stanley Cup for a fourth consecutive time.
Can it be done safely?
While new COVID-19 case counts are in a steady decline and the pressure on Ontario’s hospital system is decreasing, experts disagree on the prospect of reopening sporting events to fans.
“There is value, obviously, for a lot of people in going to the game. There is value for the team in having fans there,” said Jeffrey Siegel, a University of Toronto engineering professor who specializes in ventilation and air quality.
“But there is also a risk, and the risk is still pretty present.”
Siegel said the continued closure of other businesses, such as restaurants and non-essential small businesses, makes it difficult to justify the opening of a sports arena where potentially thousands of people would gather.
Siegel also noted that transmission of the novel coronavirus would likely not be a major risk in the stands — where physical distancing, an abundance of open air and ventilation could help mitigate risks — but he warned the risk could be higher in other areas of the arena, such as bathrooms, entry points and concession stands.
Fans heading back ‘a canary down a coal mine’
Keith Warriner, a microbiologist at the University of Guelph, acknowledged the risk of reopening arenas, but said a measured return to pre-pandemic activities may now be in order.
“Very similar to putting a canary down a coal mine, we need to have a sense of whether it is safe for people to return to these crowded events,” he told CBC Toronto.
“We need these kinds of events just to test the waters.”
Both Siegel and Warriner dismissed the notion that vaccinated fans should be allowed to attend freely, in part because not all Ontario residents have had the same level of access to vaccines.
In any case, only 3.1 per cent of Ontario’s population has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
There is said to be a greater need for proactive measures such as distancting, limited capacity, improved ventilation and the availability of contact tracing resources if fans are to attend games later in the playoffs, should the Leafs advance.
Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment declined an interview about any steps the organization is taking to safely reopen Scotiabank Arena to fans.
The provincial government did not indicate any plan to amend the existing restrictions before the expected end of the stay-at-home order, though it opened the door to changes after that point.
“We will provide more detail on what the weeks ahead will look like before June 2nd, when the latest extension of the stay-at-home order expires,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said.