New Brunswick public health gave the Moncton Wildcats an exemption that allowed the team to keep practicing during an October COVID-19 outbreak in the Moncton region, even though organized sports were prohibited.
But a Campbellton-based hockey team that applied for a similar exemption had its request denied.
The Campbellton Tigers play in the Maritime Junior Hockey League (MHL), which has teams in all three Maritime provinces, while the Wildcats play in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). The New Brunswick-based QMJHL teams have only played other Maritime teams this season, before the league paused activities in November.
Dr. Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick's chief medical officer of health, said that Zone 5 (Campbellton region) was at the beginning of its outbreak and had more cases when the Campbellton Tigers asked for permission for its players to continue practicing.
"We couldn't give them the same type of exemption," Russell said in an interview.
"It was a very, very different, totally different situation, with respect to the epidemiology."
No one from the Campbellton Tigers was made available for an interview.
Documents obtained by CBC News through access to information show how officials with the QMJHL commissioner's office met virtually with Public Health officials, once the province announced it would be moving Zone 1 (the Moncton region) back to the orange phase as of Oct. 10. Zone 5 was moved back to the orange phase at the same time.
Team asked for permission to play game
The records detail how the QMJHL asked for permission for the Moncton Wildcats to play an away game against the Saint John Sea Dogs on Oct. 10, after the team played and stayed over in Halifax the night before. Public Health officials said no.
"This is to reiterate that Public Health directs that the game does not proceed tonight," Heidi Liston, the assistant deputy minister of Public Health, wrote in an email to officials with the QMJHL on Oct. 10. The names of the QMJHL employees are redacted in the documents.
"This is the recommendation and it will not change based on current epidemiological forecast. We are still able to meet tomorrow to revise the operational plan moving forward."
On Oct. 12, Russell signed a letter addressed to the commissioner of the QMJHL, confirming a Public Health exemption for the Moncton Wildcats.
"Players and staff are permitted to travel back and forth from their place of residence and Avenir Centre for practice," Russell's letter says.
"All Orange Phase Public Health preventive measures are required to be followed up to the point of stepping on and off the ice. This includes the avoidance by staff and players from gathering outside of work, which in this case is interpreted [as] practice time on and off the ice."
Russell wrote that the team's "enhanced operational plan for medical and sanitary protocols" was deemed appropriate and staff and players with the team would have to self-isolate and get tested "at the first sign of any COVID-related symptoms."
She said the team would also have to keep a log of everyone present at practices.
"Should the situation in Zone 1 change in terms of changes in epidemiologic assessment and risk, this exemption can be revoked," the letter says.
Rules in orange phase tweaked
While organized sports weren't allowed when the Moncton and Campbellton regions were first moved into the orange phase in October, the orange phase has since been tweaked to allow sports teams to practice or work on drills, as long as they are all from the same team.
"At the time that we made this exception, it was a very strong operational plan that was in keeping with what we were moving towards for the next time there was an orange phase," Russell said in an interview.
She said the restrictions in each Public Health phase are an evolution, and the time between outbreaks, when regions are in the yellow phase, is when officials can look at how to improve the rules. They then take those recommendations to cabinet.
"Was this exemption ideal? Certainly, the timing and the process that we were leading up to for making recommendations around sports practices and teams, etc. at all levels were coming and they were in the works," Russell said.
"Certainly, we could have waited and just said you know what, let's get you in the next round just like everybody else. But this is just the way it happened. Is it ideal? Probably not. But again, lessons learned."
The Moncton Wildcats declined comment for this story.
The QMJHL also declined an interview request.
A spokesperson for the league said the QMJHL has respected all directives from New Brunswick Public Health.
"After a discussion with [Public Health] on Oct. 9th, we decided to postpone the game between Moncton and Saint John on Oct. 10th and postpone all Wildcats games until the end of the orange phase," QMJHL spokesperson Maxime Blouin wrote in an email.
"A league like ours needs to work in collaboration with the Public Health and Government officials."
Sea Dogs haven't requested exemptions
Blouin confirmed there were no other exemptions granted to New Brunswick-based QMJHL teams.
The president and general manager of the Saint John Sea Dogs, Trevor Georgie, said his team has never asked Public Health for any exemptions. The province had already updated its regulations to allow sports teams to practice by the time Zone 2 (the Saint John region) experienced an outbreak in November and spent time in the orange phase.
"We just want to play by the rules like every other business and keep everyone safe," Georgie said.
"There's a lot more going on in the world than hockey."
The organization suspended operations in November after there was a positive test among its staff. One other person "involved with the team" also tested positive while they were already in self-isolation, according to Georgie.
He said the team put players in a team-required confinement for a period of time. Georgie said it wasn't required by the league or Public Health, but the organization wanted to be "extra cautious"
"Fortunately all the players came back negative," he said.
The QMJHL will resume play in the new year and the Maritime teams could begin playing again as early as Jan. 21, though it's not clear exactly what that will look like without an Atlantic bubble.
Georgie expects the three New Brunswick teams may only play each other at first. He doesn't think the league will try to create an Atlantic hockey bubble, like the QMJHL did with several teams in Quebec City earlier this year.
"I don't foresee a situation in New Brunswick where we'd actually host a bubble environment...I don't actually foresee that being something that's feasible," he said.
Russell said the province needs to get through the holidays and the first week of January before revisiting the idea of a bubble.
"We would ideally like to put the Atlantic bubble back together," she said.
"But a lot of things have to go in the right direction for those discussions to take place."