By The Canadian Press
Manitoba is not ready to follow Quebec’s lead in allowing hockey fans to attend NHL playoff games, while Alberta is opening the doors for 12 front-line health workers to watch the Canadian post-season opener on Wednesday in Edmonton.
While Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said Tuesday the province currently has much higher COVID-19 numbers than Quebec in answering a Facebook live question about the potential for fans in Edmonton, Alberta Health issued an exemption Wednesday for 12 front-line workers to attend Game 1 between the Oilers and Winnipeg 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.”
Meanwhile, the Manitoba Health Department said in a statement “there are not plans at this time to have fans in the arena.”
In his Facebook session Tuesday night, Kenney was told of Quebec’s decision to allow fans to return to indoor stadiums in limited numbers.
If the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs play a Game 6 of their North Division first-round series May 29 at the Bell Centre, about 2,500 spectators will be allowed in the building.
“If they can do that, bully to them, but they paid a very high price in getting those numbers down with by far the most draconian restrictions in Canada,” Kenney said Tuesday.
Ontario, the only other province with a team in the playoffs, has not commented on Quebec’s announcement. All American playoff games so far have had fans.
Kenney says 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.”
Oilers players are crossing their fingers the team can use something similar to the Montreal model in Edmonton before the end of the playoffs.
“We hope that can happen here. I think it’s a step in the right direction,” centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing that they’re going to allow some fans. I think it gives us a little bit of hope.”
“I agree. Fans would be really nice, but it is what it is,” teammate Leon Draisaitl said.
“Like Nuggy said, it’s a step in the right direction and hopefully we can follow it.”
Jets captain Blake Wheeler said he has enjoyed seeing fans back at games south of the border.
“Watching Florida and Carolina gives me envy and hope,” Wheeler said,
“Especially this time of year, to see people back in the buildings down there is a sight for sore eyes.”
Boris Derpich was among Oilers fans organizing a car convoy from Edmonton’s south side to Rogers Place before Wednesday’s game.
Fans were encouraged to wear their Oilers jerseys and fly car flags.
Derpich felt a tinge of envy that Canadiens fans have more hope of getting into the Bell Centre this season before Oilers fans currently do for Rogers.
“Envious for sure, but to be completely honest, I love the Oilers, but I’m not in the bracket where I can afford to go,” Derpich said.
“I’m a fan by buying the merchandise and watching the games, but still it would be nice to see fans in there cheering their team on right?
“You feel like you’re in the game when the fans are in there. You’re cheering with those fans. You don’t feel like you’re home watching the game. You feel like you’re with them. So, a little envious for sure.”
— With files from Donna Spencer.