NHL

Up to 2,500 fans allowed at Montreal's Bell Centre for potential Leafs-Habs Game 6

A limited number of fans will be permitted in the Bell Centre to watch a May 29 playoff game between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, should the series last that long.

Alberta allowing 12 front-line workers into Oilers-Jets Game 1

The Bell Centre, home of the Montreal Canadiens seen above in 2017, will allow up to 2,500 fans for a potential Game 6 playoff game between the Habs and Toronto Maple Leafs on May 29. The Quebec government announced Tuesday that indoor venues will begin allowing a limited number of patrons as of May 28. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

A limited number of fans will be permitted in the Bell Centre to watch a May 29 playoff game between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, should the series last that long.

The Quebec government announced Tuesday that indoor venues will be able to start hosting up to 2,500 patrons starting May 28 and that the provincial curfew will be lifted the same day.

That won't be the case in Alberta and Manitoba, however, where the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets will play their first-round series.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said later Tuesday the province currently has much higher COVID-19 numbers than Quebec, while the Manitoba Health Department on Wednesday said it had no plans at this time to have fans in the arena.

On Wednesday, however, Alberta Health issued an exemption for 12 front-line workers to attend that night's Game 1 between the Oilers and Jets.

"This is just a small token of Alberta's appreciation for the tireless work protecting Albertans over these very difficult 15 months from all of our health-care workers," Kenney said Wednesday. "And while we certainly would love to be able to welcome more fans into Rogers Place to watch the Oilers make their run for the Stanley Cup, I think it's fitting to start with those who have faced down this pandemic on the front lines and helped us all to make it through."

The Canadiens said they are looking forward to having fans back in their building if the series with the Leafs goes six games.

"We are delighted with the government's decision regarding shows and events," France Margaret Belanger, the Canadiens' executive vice-president and chief commercial officer, said in a statement.

"Although the number of spectators remains limited, we applaud this decision which allows us to foresee an eventual return to normality."

Belanger said 2,500 people is about 12 per cent of the Bell Centre's capacity.

"We really missed our fans and spectators and we can't wait to host them again. And we will be ready," she said.

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The announcement of Quebec's reopening plan came mere hours after Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada's deputy chief public health officer, said allowing fans into games is not under "serious consideration" at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I would say if you look at that timing and what's the schedule for the NHL playoffs, which is taking place right now and into the summer months, it's not really something that's under serious consideration in terms of fans in the stands, just based on where we are with our vaccination campaign at this point," Njoo said in Ottawa.

Kenney said Alberta's per capita hospitalization rate from COVID-19 is three times higher than Quebec, its per capita ICU rate is four times higher and the number of cases in the last seven days is also four times higher.

"They did much worse through much of the pandemic, but for months now, they've been in a super-hard lockdown, stay-at-home orders, curfews," he said. "As it is right now, you can not leave your home after 8 p.m. in Montreal without being fined.

"It's because of those incredibly tough measures, measures that we would never introduce in Alberta, that they got those numbers down."

All of the American games so far in the playoffs have had fans, with a high of 12,000 for a Carolina Hurricanes home contest against the Nashville Predators on Monday night.

The NHL has had Canadian teams play exclusively in the country this year with no fans at any games. The Edmonton Oilers open the North Division playoffs against the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday, while the Maple Leafs and Canadiens start their best-of-seven series Thursday in Toronto.

The winners square off in the second round before the Canadian survivor faces one of the three remaining American teams in the third round.

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While Njoo did not see fans in attendance at Canadian playoff games, he said discussions are ongoing to determine if there can be cross-border travel in the third round and/or the Stanley Cup final.

"The live issue of course right now is what happens when we do get to the final four," Njoo said.

Njoo said the federal government has had discussions with the provinces to figure out what might be possible.

The issue for the NHL is the 14-day quarantine for those coming in from outside Canada, which would be impossible during a best-of-seven series when one team hosts Games 1, 2, 5 and 7 and the other hosts Games 3, 4 and 6.

If the league and the country can't come to an agreement on a modified quarantine, the North Division winner could relocate to the U.S. after the second round.

Many Canadian professional teams in other sports with regular cross-border travel have played home games in the U.S. during the pandemic.

Jets coach Paul Maurice said Monday the fans were very noticeable during the American playoff games.

"I really do believe that the only possible silver lining in all of this is the people and the players have just a great appreciation for just how great fans are and the experience for the players, especially," Maurice said.

"I think it makes a big, big difference."

The CFL's Montreal Alouettes said they were encouraged by Tuesday's announcement. The CFL is hoping to return to action in 2021 after having its 2020 season wiped out by the pandemic.

"Since the presence of a certain number of fans in the stands is essential for the Alouettes to return to play, today's announcements is a step in the right direction considering that the team's first home game [in Montreal] would most likely take place in September," the Alouettes said in a statement.

"It goes without saying that the organization is also extremely happy that youngsters will be able to practice their favourite team sport once again."

Major League Soccer's Montreal Impact (now CF Montreal) was the first Canadian professional sports team to have fans during the pandemic when 250 fans attended an Aug. 25 game against Vancouver.

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