Return to play scenarios for junior hockey in Ontario are contrasts in distinction.
For example, while teams in the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League and the eastern Ontario based Central Canada Hockey League are on the ice holding drills that vary from skill sessions to non contact scrimmages, members representing the Ontario Hockey League remain in a dormant state relative to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both commissioner Robert Mazzuca of the NOJHL and CCHL commander in chief Kevin Abrams are maintaining a wait and see attitude as they keep in touch with public health officials and their respective governing bodies while overseeing their respective leagues during these unprecedented times.
The 11-team NOJHL is governed by the Ontario Hockey Federation. Meanwhile, Hockey Eastern Ontario serves as the governing body for the 12-team CCHL.
The OHF and HEO represent two of the 13 regional branches of Hockey Canada. Hockey Canada is the national governing body while maintaining a partnership with the OHL, which is under the umbrella of the Canadian Hockey League.
At any rate, Mazzuca, in his position as the long-time leader of the NOJHL, told me that he has been in on all calls with the OHF relative to a possible return to play date for his league, which features 10 teams in northeastern Ontario and one in the Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
To be sure, an issue facing the NOJHL pertains to its lone American entry, the Soo Eagles. The Eagles are separated from the rest of the NOJHL by the International Bridge at Sault Ste. Marie, which currently remains closed to all non-essential travel.
The other 10 teams of the NOJHL are all based in northeastern Ontario and are either in the East Division or the West Division. They are, from west to east, the Soo Thunderbirds, Blind River Beavers, Espanola Express, Rayside Balfour Canadians, French River Rapids, Powassan Voodoos, Timmins Rock, Cochrane Crunch, Kirkland Lake Gold Miners and Hearst Lumberjacks.
And once play resumes, the NOJHL will likely opt to have teams play within their own division, thus cutting down on travel and eliminating over night stays, all in the name of the safety of players, coaches and other team personnel.
Mazzuca added that the NOJHL has a plan in place should it return to play with the Canada-United States border still closed and the Michigan based Soo Eagles unable to travel into northern Ontario.
When asked, Mazzuca said that he did not want to speculate when the NOJHL might be cleared for a return to play, noting that “we as a league presented a lengthy proposal with various potential start dates to the OHF several weeks ago.”
Meanwhile, I asked Abrams, as commissioner of the CCHL, when he thinks regular season play among the league’s 12 teams might begin.
“No idea, really,” Abrams replied. “We are week to week right now. (Teams are having) scrimmages with no contact.”
Meantime, the 20-team, major junior level OHL aspires to restart with familiar rules and a format as close to normal as it can for the 2020-2021 season.
However, Ontario provincial government sport minister Lisa MacLeod told The Sports Network (TSN) recently that the OHL may need to adopt minor hockey’s approach by shelving fighting, body checking and all physical contact when the puck is set to drop — if face offs are even allowed — on its planned Dec. 1 start date.
Of note, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League launched its regular season last week, with stiffer fighting penalties — and in a province with many more active coronavirus cases than Ontario has.
“From the outset, we made it clear we have ongoing discussions with the Ontario government about our return to play and the operation of our teams and league under COVID-19,” OHL commissioner David Branch told sportswriter Ryan Pyette of the London Free Press.
“It would be premature for me to offer any comment as to what the outcome might be,” Branch added.
Branch told Postmedia that he has talked with QMJHL commissioner Gilles Courteau, expressed his best wishes for a successful season and will be watching the progress with great interest.
The QMJHL, which is seeking $20 million in provincial government assistance to cover lost ticket revenue due to empty buildings, voted in new measures after Province of Quebec sport minister Isabelle Charest called for a ban on fighting.
In the QMJHL, fighters will receive a five-minute major and 10-minute misconduct and each combatant will be handed a one-game suspension for every tussle after their third bout of the season.
“There are certain aspects of it that have been taken from what the OHL has done previously,” Branch said. “That’s one of the great things about the Canadian Hockey League is we learn from each other and it’ll be very interesting to see how that new rule plays out.
“We’ve always been unafraid to address those elements in our game which we feel have no useful purpose,” Branch added.
Meanwhile, Mark Hunter, who is the general manager and a part owner of the OHL’s London Knights, agreed with the move by the QMJHL to discourage fights.
“There should be no fighting right now,” Hunter said. “This is not the time.”
In the interim, MacLeod, as Ontario minister of sport, said there has been discussion with the OHL about a pandemic aid package but added that the league has not requested a specific amount.
From his end, Branch considers the biggest hurdles to address remain the Canada-U.S. border — the OHL has three American based teams, namely the Flint Firebirds, Saginaw Spirit and Erie Otters — and spectator support.
All 20 OHL teams rely on ticket sales as their main source of revenue. And Branch made it clear that the OHL has little to no interest in uprooting the three American teams from their home bases.
“We have never shied away from those key points and are working diligently with the government and various health agencies to see if we can arrive at a point where we can conduct our league as we normally would,” Branch said. “There has never been discussion about proceeding without any of our teams. We are 20 strong.”
The OHL still wants to open training camps by Nov. 15 and have exhibition games the following two weekends. The regular season would run a month later than usual, until April 29, and the Memorial Cup would be held June 17-27 in either Sault Ste. Marie or Oshawa.
The OHL is expected to adopt a QMJHL style schedule that features “bubble” divisions, which limits travel and contact with teams at a further distance.
“We have produced multiple versions of our schedule and at the end of the day, it will take the shape the government and health agencies feel comfortable with,” Branch said.
“On the Memorial Cup, it is now up to the league through its selection committee to make a determination (between the Sault and Oshawa). We are reaching that point and it is an exciting part of our league. We were hoping ideally the presentations could be made in person but reached the conclusion that it best serves everyone to do it by other means (Zoom meeting),” Branch pointed out.
There is considerable optimism that the OHL will start on time and be willing to do what it takes to ensure that all 20 teams take to the ice this season. Of note, the QMJHL said it did not produce a positive COVID-19 test through its month-long training camp.
“We are watching the QMJHL and I think that is very important,” relayed aforementioned London Knights GM Mark Hunter. “We are all in this together. We want to give the players a chance to compete and it would be a sad day in everybody’s lives if (a shutdown) happened.
“It is a source of entertainment and joy to people across Ontario and the whole CHL.
“There are a lot of loyal fans and it’s a community of partners and it’s good for all sides if we can play,” summed up Hunter.