The 18 teams of the Quebec Major Jr. Hockey League have already combined to play well over 150 games thus far into the COVID-19 affected, 2020-2021 regular season.
Meanwhile, the 22-member Western Hockey League is slated to begin play on February 26 with games involving its Alberta-based teams.
Over to the Ontario Hockey League — where COVID-19 cases continue to drop province wide — no firm start date has been determined for its 20 teams, three of which are American-based. But commissioner David Branch is optimistic that the OHL, which along with the QMJHL and WHL are under the umbrella of the Canadian Hockey League, will play hockey this season.
“We want to make sure — along with our government and health authorities — that we start when the optimum opportunity presents and then return to play … and return to stay,” Branch began.
“I am of the opinion that Ontario has some very high standards and as a resident of the province with family here, I am not going to challenge that one bit,” Branch relayed to Postmedia.
It is known that the OHL recently circulated a questionnaire to its 20 teams to try to gather thoughts on the latest possible start to the 2020-2021 season, an end date, and a proposed number of games.
Some of the reasonable scenarios have zeroed in on a short 20-game regular season played over the months of April and May followed by abbreviated playoff series in June.
“The will to play across the board has never been in doubt,” Branch said, “and I have always been optimistic in doing something. We have taken the position that we can only go forward with the proper approvals and that is the only thing we can do for the league and welfare of our players.
“We are one league and we will do it as we always do with everything we address — for all 20 teams, not just one or two here and there,” Branch stressed.
Meanwhile, the QMJHL has remained active despite an early rash of COVID-19 cases that forced it to convert to bubble play.
And thus far, the WHL is slated to start on February 26 in Alberta and begin play in its U.S. Division on March 19.
Five Alberta teams will form the Central Division and include the Calgary Hitmen, Edmonton Oil Kings, Lethbridge Hurricanes, Medicine Hat Tigers, and Red Deer Rebels. Games will be played without spectators, at least to start the 24-game regular season among the five Alberta teams.
The WHL’s five American teams are the Everett Silvertips, Portland Winterhawks, Seattle Thunderbirds, Spokane Chiefs and Tri-City Americans.
The WHL continues to work with government and health authorities in each provincial jurisdictions to establish a start date for the league’s East Division and B.C. Division.
As OHL commissioner, Branch commented on the return to play in the QMJHL and the poised return in the WHL.
“Quebec and the West first got approval from their respective health authorities, which is paramount,” noted Branch. “In terms of any government funding (in Ontario), that can only be determined as to what needs we have once we know the conditions under which we can return to play.
“I would characterize our discussions with the (Ontario) government as one of them demonstrating co-operation, understanding and support. They would like to see us return and play, but under the right conditions,” added Branch.
An issue at hand is the OHL’s three American-based teams — Flint Firebirds, Saginaw Spirit and Erie Otters — and how they would into a schedule. Flint and Saginaw are nearby neighbours in Michigan while Erie is located in Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, Branch noted that there is still hope that the CHL’s Memorial Cup Tournament, which is slated to be held in either Sault Ste. Marie or Oshawa this year, will not have to be cancelled for a second straight season.
Soo Greyhounds are one of three northern Ontario-based teams in the OHL, along with the Sudbury Wolves and North Bay Battalion.
“We are all working together and that determination will be made as soon as we can,” Branch said. “The Memorial Cup is a celebration of major junior hockey and it’s about the best teams coming together If one of our leagues can’t present a champion, then there will be no Memorial Cup this year.”
As far as a definite return to play, however, Branch will not go that far, having just released the following statement.
“First and foremost, the Ontario Hockey League is anxious to return to play and eager to get our players back on the ice to drop the puck on a 2020-2021 regular Season. As we have for many months, we continue to work hard toward ensuring a safe return to play for everyone.
“We are encouraged by our ongoing discussions with government and public health agencies, but have not yet arrived at an approved return to play framework for the coming season.
“The League will share more information with our players, families, staff, billets and tremendous fans as a finalized plan for a safe return to the ice becomes available.”