As America’s professional sports leagues try to figure out how to restart their games, they have to consider a factor that is not receiving a lot of attention in the United States at the moment: Canada.
The vast country north of the United States has been at the forefront of the sports world’s vast response to the COVID-19 pandemic, playing a key role in persuading the International Olympic Committee to postpone the Tokyo Games and, in some regions of the country, canceling all sporting events and other large gatherings through August.
Canada’s austere approach to the pandemic and push for long-term social distancing measures stand in stark contrast to the approach of President Donald Trump, who has spoken regularly with the leaders of sports leagues about getting games up and running again. Trump has included some of those leaders on his task force for restarting the U.S. economy, and he has said he wants athletic competition to begin again for his own entertainment and as a symbol of life returning to normal.
No such rush exists in Canada, the home of the reigning NBA champions, the Toronto Raptors; 11 other franchises that are part of the United States’ five major sports leagues; and one MLB-affiliated minor league baseball team.
Steven Guilbeault, the minister of Canadian Heritage, who oversees all of Canada’s national sports institutions, including its Olympic committee, said that for now, much of the country was essentially operating under a prohibition on all large gatherings until the end of the summer, including sports.
League representatives in the United States said that they had open lines of communication with government officials in Canada, but that serious discussions about holding games in Canada had yet to occur.
Guilbeault said the federal and provincial governments may consider some wiggle room for sports, perhaps allowing them to be played without crowds or with a reduced number of fans. But it’s far too early to predict anything, he said.
Much of the responsibility lies with the leaders of provinces and territories. The federal government is able to mandate rule throughout the country only if it invokes the Emergencies Act, though the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, does control the border with the United States, giving him the power to say who can come to Canada to conduct business — or play a game.
Earlier this month, Trudeau discussed with provincial premiers the possibility of invoking the act to coordinate a national response to COVID-19, but the premiers rejected the idea, preferring to set their own regional policies.
As of Tuesday, Quebec and Ontario had about 31,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, representing about 80% of all the cases in Canada.
On April 10, Quebec’s Ministry of Tourism issued a directive canceling “festivals and other cultural and sporting gatherings, indoor and outdoor, for the summer period.”
The directive applies to all sports at every level. Any sports federation or promoter who wishes to hold an event, whether it is a children’s soccer tournament or a Montreal Alouettes football game, will have to obtain the authorization of the public health department and the Ministry of Education, said Alice Bergeron, the press secretary for Quebec’s Tourism Ministry. Organizations will have to demonstrate that the event can be held safely, she said.
The Rogers Cup, a women’s tennis tournament that had been scheduled for Aug. 7-16 in Montreal, announced this month that the event would not take place this year. The men’s side of the tournament, scheduled for the same period in Toronto, has not been canceled, but over the weekend, Premier Doug Ford of Ontario, which borders Quebec to the west, said normal life in the province would not return until scientists find a vaccine. Experts say that could take 12 to 18 months.
“Until we find a vaccine, going back to normal means putting lives at risk,” Ford said during a news conference on Saturday. “Letting our guard down means potentially exposing millions of people to the virus.”
A national plan is especially important to the NHL, which has seven of its teams in five provinces, and to MLS, which has three teams in three provinces.
A spokesman for the NHL said the league planned to follow the advice of leading medical authorities and of local and federal officials in the United States and Canada.
A spokesman for MLS said for now it was relying on its franchise owners in Canada to work with government officials.
Guilbeault said that the provinces would probably reject any federally imposed plan for returning to play and that necessity would probably dictate a coordinated response.
“I think there will be an agreement among the provinces because it wouldn’t make sense for it to happen in any other way,” he said.
All the leagues have considered trying to gather their personnel in one location and holding all games there, which could eliminate any Canadian obstacles, but none of those plans have yet proven workable.