Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators cleared to play in home arenas amid COVID-19

NHL: Eastern Conference Qualifications-Toronto Maple Leafs at Columbus Blue Jackets

TORONTO (Reuters) – The Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators have been cleared to play home games in their respective arenas when the NHL season begins next week in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic’s second wave, the Canadian province of Ontario said on Thursday.

Ontario Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Minister Lisa MacLeod made the announcement on the same day the province, which entered a 28-day lockdown that started on Boxing Day, reported a record one-day spike in new COVID-19 cases.

“This approval was granted after close scrutiny of the rigorous health and safety protocols that will be adopted to keep players, staff and our communities safe from the spread of COVID-19 while permitting Ontario’s NHL teams to play the game we all love to watch,” MacLeod said in a statement.

Due to the pandemic and to avoid cross-border travel, the National Hockey League decided to split its 31 teams into three U.S.-based divisions and one all-Canadian division.

The seven Canadian teams from five provinces will only play each other during the 56-game regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs.

The Maple Leafs are scheduled to host the Montreal Canadiens when the new season begins on Jan. 13 while the Senators will open their campaign on Jan. 15 at home against Toronto.

The NBA’s Toronto Raptors began the 2020-21 season last month playing their home games in Tampa, Florida, after their request to play home games in Toronto was denied by the Canadian federal government.

(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Ed Osmond)