Planes, Buses, and COVID Tests: How the NHL Playoffs Are Spotlighting America's Dumb Border Rules

There's no reason to have one set of rules for airline passengers and another for people who cross the border in a bus, train, or car.


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

Instead of flying from Toronto to Florida, the Leafs' players, coaches, and staff piled into buses and drove to the airport in Buffalo, New York, after their loss on Wednesday night, according to TSN hockey reporter Darren Dreger.

Why the scenic route? Per the current rules governing cross-border travel into the United States, air travelers must show a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours of entering the country. But there's no testing required to drive into the country—so by bussing to Buffalo, the Leafs avoid an unnecessary complication in their travels. They also avoid the possibility of a positive test that keeps one or more players from making the trip at all.

Toronto is not the only National Hockey League (NHL) team doing this. Dreger reports that the Edmonton Oilers had an even more complicated travel schedule to commute to their upcoming playoff games in Los Angeles. Unlike Toronto, Edmonton is not within easy driving distance of an American airport, so the Oilers flew to Vancouver, took buses to Seattle, then boarded planes bound for L.A.

This has been common practice for teams going back and forth across the border all year, Dreger notes.

It's also a perfect illustration of why the federal government ought to drop the mandatory COVID testing requirement for passengers on flights entering the United States—or at least drop it for flights from Canada and Mexico, the only places from which travelers can enter by air and ground. There's no rational justification for subjecting travelers to different rules based on the means used to enter the country. A passenger on a plane is no more likely to be carrying COVID than someone on a bus or in a car.

Indeed, travelers have been well aware of this gaping loophole for a while. The CBC ran a story in April of last year about how many Canadians were crossing the U.S. border by land specifically to evade America's testing and quarantine rules.

Like with other nonsensical COVID rules, the only thing the testing mandate seems to be accomplishing is the making of creative travel arrangements. It might not rise to the level of, say, New York City mandating vaccines for players on the city's home teams but exempting visiting players from the same rules, but the testing mandate is clearly not accomplishing a public health purpose.

Once again, sports are at the forefront of these debates over COVID policy because of the massive logistical operations that are necessary to make professional leagues work and due to the prominence of pro sports in American culture. Throughout the pandemic, sports leagues have had a powerful financial incentive to find safe, effective ways to keep the games going. Unlike governments (and government-run industries like public schools) that have been more content to impose major restrictions without consideration of the costs, sports leagues have been quick to evolve their policies to match the changing circumstances of the pandemic.

When the National Football League, for example, decided in December that it would stop requiring asymptomatic players who tested positive for COVID to be held out of practices and games—essentially declaring that positive tests were insignificant factors within environments where vaccination was widespread—it both reflected a growing "vaxxed-and done" trend within the rest of American society and signaled to more stodgy institutions that policy changes were needed.

For much of the pandemic, the leagues took pains to respect the differing COVID rules at the U.S.-Canadian border. That was especially a problem for the NHL, which has seven of its 31 franchises in Canada. The league temporarily realigned its structure to put all seven Canadian teams into a separate division for the 2020-21 season and adjusted its schedule to eliminate cross-border travel. Toronto-based teams playing in Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) were also forced to adjust. The MLB's Toronto Blue Jays spent most of the past two seasons playing some "home" games at their spring training facility in Florida and others at a minor league ballpark in Buffalo, New York. The NBA's Toronto Raptors made a temporary home in Florida too.

But sports are once again signaling that change is needed. The NHL dropped its all-Canadian division before this season began, but the creative travel arrangements are being thrown into the spotlight now that there are three U.S.-vs.-Canada pairings among the league's eight first-round playoff series. (The Calgary Flames and Dallas Stars will decamp from Alberta to Texas after the second game of their playoff series on Thursday night, but Dreger says there is no word yet on how they will hokey-pokey across the border).

If mandatory testing for airplane travelers from Canada ever made sense—and perhaps it did in the very early days of the pandemic, before COVID was endemic on both sides of the border—that time has long since passed. The rule is now accomplishing nothing except complicating the free movement of people, and hockey players, across the continent.