Junior hockey’s new normal


Randy Russon
By
June 21, 2020

In one way at least, the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League has a potential advantage over the Ontario Hockey League.

Pullar Stadium is a jewel of an NOJHL facility.

That is, should attendance restrictions be mandated once junior hockey is cleared for game activity, the NOJHL would be in a more enviable position than the OHL.

Attendance is the major source of revenue for the OHL. And while NOJHL teams do rely on attendance as a means of survival, they are also enhanced financially as a ‘pay to play’ league.

As well, NOJHL teams are in a favourable geographical region relative to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To be sure, there has been no indication — one way or another — whether there will be attendance restrictions in place once junior hockey games are played.

But if there are restrictions — and let us say for example that arenas are limited to 50 per cent capacity — the NOJHL, as a whole, would be far better off than the OHL.

For the most part, teams in the NOJHL draw less than half the number of fans per game than their arenas can hold. (The exceptions would be in the attendance leading towns of Timmins and Hearst where the Rock and Lumberjacks routinely play to crowds that are well over 50 per cent of the seating capacity.)

One team that is in a good position relative to attendance and seating capacity is the Soo Eagles.

The Eagles were again among the NOJHL attendance leaders in 2019-2020, averaging just over 600 fans per game at Pullar Stadium. But the catch is that the official capacity at the venerable Pullar is listed at 2,200. So, even at, say, 700 fans for an Eagles, game, the Pullar would only be at about 33 per cent capacity.

The OHL, on the other hand, relies heavily on a fan base and most teams need to fill their buildings to close to capacity levels to be in a position of profit. (Imagine, for example, if the Soo Greyhounds are limited to 2,300 fans per game instead of 4,600 or so?)

At any rate, there will be a new normal in the world moving forward. And the new hockey normal — where crowds gather in big numbers in close quarters in indoor facilities — is going to be much different than what those with any association to the game have become used to.

When will the 2020-2021 junior hockey season begin?

It could well depend on regions of geography.

For instance, the NOJHL might be able to start its season earlier than the OHL. And in the eastern and western parts of Canada where COVID-19 has had less of an impact than in Ontario (and Quebec) the opening dates might be closer to the regular start time.

But when junior hockey does get the nod to return, attendance at games will just be part of the issues going forward.

There will be the player dressing rooms — not exactly known for their cleanliness in some of the old junior A buildings — that will be cause for concern with players sitting side by side.

And what about players sitting close to one another on the bench — and on buses for team road trips? And what about the old ways of up to four players sharing a hotel room on a road trip?

There is also the matter of the Canada-United States border, which is currently closed due to COVID-19. What if the borders remain closed when junior hockey returns to game activity?

Of the 11 teams that currently make up the NOJHL, one is situated outside of northern Ontario — the Michigan-based Soo Eagles.

As for the OHL, three of its member teams are based in the United States — Erie Otters, Flint Firebirds and Saginaw Spirit. Erie is in Pennsylvania while Flint and Saginaw are both in mid Michigan.

Back to player and fan safety and the fear of the spread of COVID-19.

Should all players wear full plastic shield face masks? Will arenas limit the number of spectators in a washroom facility? Will social distancing be enforced in concession lineups?

There are so many variables out there. There is so much uncertainty. There is fear. There is concern. There is anxiety.

We can only hope — and in some cases, pray — that some semblance of normal returns sooner than later.

In the case of junior hockey — which is not only about players and fans and parents and advertisers and friends and neighbours but about jobs and careers and community involvement — we wish and hope and pray for its safe return.

A junior league like the NOJHL, which is made up of so many small town communities, is already down one team ahead of the 2020-2021 season as the Elliot Lake Wildcats have shut down operations.

And other small market teams such as Blind River, Cochrane, Espanola, French River, Hearst and the Michigan Soo depend a lot on local businesses for their support. Local businesses that have taken a hit because of COVID-19.

Hopefully, the support for all teams can be maintained — or restored, at some point. And if money is tight for those who operate teams, maybe coaches will consider taking less pay, if only for a year.

As Ontario premier Doug Ford is fond of saying: “We are all in this together.”

Meantime, we commend the coaches and the general managers and the owners and the operators and the advertisers and the supporters who are thinking in the present, planning for the future — and showing steely resolve in trying to keep junior hockey going.


What you think about “Junior hockey’s new normal”

  1. I think covid 19 is over blown. I know no one that knows of anyone who has tested positive. The game must go on. Hearst did not have one positive case of covid 19. Yes the majority that suffered the most had underlying conditions. We think differently and we act differently. If someone is truly fearful they won’t be seen at the game. People suffering the flu for the most part stay home.

  2. Mr. Smith, perhaps you should talk to the families that have lost loved ones to this virus. Not taking it seriously is the immediate cause that it is still taking lives. I know our nurses, doctors and 1st responders would disagree loudly with your statement that Covid 19 is overblown. Switch off Fox News and get some reality back.

  3. John Smith: So, because you personally don’t know anyone that had the virus, it’s a joke? Give your head a shake. I love hockey too, but it takes a backseat to life right now, sorry to disappoint you….πŸ™„πŸ™„πŸ™„

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