OTTAWA — Canadian officials are in talks with both the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball about exemptions that could open a path for professional athletes to cross the heavily restricted U.S.-Canada border.
Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino told POLITICO in an interview Thursday that separate discussions with the leagues could result in “national interest exemptions,” which would allow players to avoid some of the pandemic-driven border measures.
But Mendicino stressed the proposals must first get a green light from public health authorities.
The arena: The talks are underway as vaccination rates improve in both countries — and President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau come under pressure to start easing restrictions put in place nearly 15 months ago.
Players, like other nonessential travelers, would be subject to 14-day quarantines without an exemption.
First hockey: The NHL matter is more pressing with the playoffs underway.
The winner of the all-Canadian division, which will be decided by June 13 at the latest, will square off with a U.S.-based team for the next round. For the Canadian team — either the Montreal Canadiens or Winnipeg Jets — to host their American opponents, the NHL will need a border exemption.
“The decision is certainly being carefully considered,” Mendicino said. “There needs to be rigorous due diligence with regards to the proposals which have been put forward by the NHL, by our public health officials. We’ll receive and review that advice very carefully before taking a decision.”
Political pressure: One prominent lawmaker has tried to use the NHL talks to encourage authorities to loosen the border restrictions for others.
Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) said this week that any government exemption for NHL players at the border should also be considered to reunite families who have been kept apart by the pandemic measures.
Then baseball: The Toronto Blue Jays opened their 2021 season by playing home games at their spring training facility in Dunedin, Fla. Earlier this week, the club moved to Sahlen Field in Buffalo, N.Y., where it played during the pandemic last year.
The Jays remain hopeful that if public health conditions improve they might be able to return to Toronto before the end of the season.
Mendicino said the Canadian government has had “very preliminary discussions” with Major League Baseball.
“Again here, like in every other case where there is a proposal put forward for any kind of an exemption to existing health protocols, we take advice from our officials prior to taking a decision,” he said. “And certainly that, too, will be reviewed under careful consideration.”
Mark Shapiro, the Blue Jays’ president and CEO, told reporters Tuesday that the recent conversations at every level — municipal, provincial and federal — have been more consistent, substantive and “certainly more positive.”
“There is an underlying level of optimism that the proliferation of vaccines and the impact of vaccines is being seen,” Shapiro said. “But I think despite the encouragement and despite the optimism … there remains the obstacle of the border.”
He added that until the restrictions have been lifted, any proposal would have the challenge of creating a set of circumstances that allowed cross-border travel for players, families and visiting teams.
“It’s not impossible, but it’s not an easy thing to do,” he said. “Until the border is open, there are significant challenges with us returning to Toronto to play.”