Fearing edge for Habs rival, Quebec premier pushes public health to boost capacity at Bell Centre

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Fans at the Bell Centre celebrating the Montreal Canadiens series win against Winnipeg Jets last week. Attendance at the arena is currently capped at 2,500.  (Jean-Yves Ahern/USA TODAY Sports - image credit)
Fans at the Bell Centre celebrating the Montreal Canadiens series win against Winnipeg Jets last week. Attendance at the arena is currently capped at 2,500. (Jean-Yves Ahern/USA TODAY Sports - image credit)

Premier François Legault said he is concerned the Vegas Golden Knights will have an advantage over the Montreal Canadiens in their semifinal series because of limits on crowd capacity at the Bell Centre, and is asking public health to revise the limits upward.

The first two games of the best-of-seven series will be played in Las Vegas, where there are no restrictions on arena crowd sizes. More than 18,000 fans are expected to be packed into the T-Mobile Arena when the puck drops Monday night.

The arena was at capacity for the Knights' series against the Colorado Avalanche. The Vegas general manager, Kelly McCrimmon, attributed key home wins to the vocal support from fans in the arena.

But existing public health rules in Quebec limit attendance at indoor stadiums to 2,500 people, with the additional stipulation that no more than 250 people can sit in any given section.

A sports writer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Ben Gotz, speculated recently that the difference in home-game crowd sizes would give "the Knights a crucial edge in their semifinal series against the Montreal Canadiens."

Jean-Yves Ahern/USA TODAY Sports
Jean-Yves Ahern/USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, Legault, an avid Canadiens fan, said he had spoken about the potential issue with several people, including Habs centre Phillip Danault and the provincial public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda.

"I'm pushing on Dr. Arruda" to increase the limit, Legault said at a news conference in Montreal.

But he acknowledged there remained public health concerns. The 2,500-person limit is part of a wide-ranging plan by the Quebec government to gradually lift restrictions over the course of the summer.

"We need to go gradually in order not to see a bump in cases in the coming weeks," Legault said.

The other factor he raised was fairness to organizers of other events in the province, especially festivals, who have been forced to either downsize or cancel events outright because of the restrictions.

"We have to be fair," Legault said. "I don't want to give special rights to the Bell Centre."

More accommodations possible

The Canadiens made a formal request to provincial public health authorities last week, seeking to increase the permitted capacity at the Bell Centre. Public Health has yet to respond.

At its pre-pandemic capacity of around 21,000 seats, the Bell Centre was considered among the loudest arenas in the NHL.

The Canadiens are already benefiting from an exemption from federal travel restrictions, which will allow the team to travel to the U.S. and return without being required to quarantine at a hotel.

Players and staff will, however, have to stay at home upon their return to Canada and undergo daily COVID-19 tests.

Clark County, Nev., where Las Vegas is located, has an infection rate of 9.6 cases per 100,000. The rate in Montreal is 35.4 per 100,000.

John Locher/AP
John Locher/AP

The Quebec premier speculated on Sunday about revising other public health measures in order to accommodate the Vegas-Canadiens series.

Currently, bars and restaurants must close at midnight in Quebec. But the games in Las Vegas, because of the time difference, will only start at 9 p.m. ET.

"I think we'll have to see with public health, with Dr. Arruda, if we can extend these hours," Legault said.

The last time the Canadiens made the semifinals was 2014, when the team lost to the New York Rangers. The Habs haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1993.

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