How the NHL playoffs shine a light on America’s stupid border rules

The Toronto Maple Leafs are headed south after splitting their first two playoff games against the Tampa Bay Lightning — but the journey is more complicated than you might expect.

Instead of flying from Toronto to Florida, Leafs players, coaches and staff boarded buses and headed to the airport in Buffalo, New York, after their loss Wednesday night, according to TSN hockey correspondent Darren Dreger.

Why scenic road? Under current rules governing cross-border travel to the United States, air travelers must test negative for COVID-19 within 48 hours of entering the country. But there’s no need to take any test drives into the country – so by busing to Buffalo, the Leafs avoid unnecessary complications on their travels. They also avoid the possibility of a positive test that would prevent one or more players from making the trip at all.

Toronto isn’t the only National Hockey League (NHL) team to do this. Dreger Reports That the Edmonton Oilers have a more complicated travel schedule to go to their upcoming playoff matches in Los Angeles. Unlike Toronto, Edmonton is not a short drive from a US airport, so the Oilers flew to Vancouver, took buses to Seattle, and then boarded planes to Los Angeles.

This was a common practice for teams to go back and forth across the border all year round, Dreger Notes.

It’s also a perfect illustration of why the federal government should drop the mandatory COVID testing requirement for passengers on flights entering the US — or at least drop it for flights from Canada and Mexico, the only places travelers can enter by air and land. There is no rationale for subjecting travelers to different rules based on the means used to enter the country. No passenger on a COVID plane is likely to be carrying more than one person in a bus or car.

In fact, travelers have been well aware of this wide loophole for a while. CBC ran a story in April last year about how many Canadians were crossing the US border by land specifically to evade America’s testing and quarantine rules.

As with other nonsensical COVID rules, the only thing the testing mandate seems to accomplish is creative travel arrangements. It might not rise to the level of, say, New York City mandating vaccinations for players on the city’s local teams, but exempting visiting players from the same rules, but mandate testing clearly does not serve a public health purpose.

Once again, sports are at the forefront of these discussions of COVID policy because of the massive logistics necessary to make professional tournaments a success and because of the prominence of professional sports in American culture. Throughout the pandemic, sports leagues have had a strong financial incentive to find safe and effective ways to keep the Games going. Unlike governments (and government-run industries such as public schools) that have been more content with imposing significant restrictions without considering costs, sports leagues have been quick to develop their policies to suit the changing conditions of the pandemic.

When, for example, the NFL decided in December that it would stop requiring asymptomatic players who have tested positive for COVID to exit practices and games — essentially declaring positive tests to be unimportant factors in environments where vaccination has spread — Both reflected a growing trend to “stick and hold” within the rest of American society, and indicated more distressed institutions with the need for policy changes.

For most of the pandemic, leagues have made an effort to respect the various COVID rules on the US-Canada border. This has been a particular problem for the NHL, which has seven of Canada’s 31 franchises. The league has temporarily reorganized its structure to put all seven Canadian teams into a separate division for the 2020-21 season and adjust its schedule to eliminate cross-border travel. The Toronto-based teams that play in Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) have also been forced to adapt. The MLB’s Toronto Blue Jays have spent most of the past two seasons playing a few “home” games at their spring training facility in Florida and others at a secondary field in Buffalo, New York. The Toronto Raptors of the NBA have created a temporary home in Florida as well.

But the sport once again suggests that change is necessary. The NHL dropped its entire Canadian division before the start of this season, but the creative travel arrangement is in the spotlight now that there have been three US-Canada pairings among the league’s first eight-round series. (The Calgary Flames and Dallas Stars will move from Alberta to Texas after Game Two of their playoff series Thursday night, but Dreger says there’s no word yet on how they play cross-border hockey.)

If mandatory testing for air travelers from Canada ever made sense — and it probably did in the early days of the pandemic, before COVID was endemic to both sides of the border — that time is long gone. The rule now accomplishes nothing but complicates the free movement of people and hockey players across the continent.