It spells cautious optimism and hope, albeit with some lingering uncertainty.
It is a date that players, coaches, fans — and anyone with any sort of association to the Ontario Hockey League — can focus on and look forward to.
And while there is still so much to do as the COVID-19 pandemic remains in our midst, the recent announcement by the OHL that it plans to begin the 2020-2021 regular season on December 1 has at least partially pulled the major junior league from the state of relative dormancy it has been in since the 2019-2020 season was shut down in mid March of this year.
For players like 19-year old forward Nick Porco, a Sault Ste. Marie native and member of the OHL’s Barrie Colts, it is something to work towards.
“I was hoping that it might be an earlier start to the season but I am very happy that the plan is that we will be playing a 64 game season,” the 6 foot, 185 pound winger told Hockey News North.
“A 64 game schedule is not going to affect my (National Hockey League) contract year and I am very happy about that,” added Porco, who was a fifth round pick of the Dallas Stars at the 2019 NHL draft. “It was so nice to hear that we have a December 1 start date to work towards and that the plan is to have a 64 game regular season.”
In the meantime, Porco will continue to work out with fellow Sault Ste. Marie hockey players such as Cole Mackay of the Soo Greyhounds, Jack Matier of the Ottawa 67’s and the likes of Steven Bellini, Jacob Kovacs and Tyler Dunbar.
A smart, skilled forward, Kovacs, as a 13th-round pick of Barrie at this year’s OHL priority selections draft, could be a Colts teammate of Porco’s this season after leading the Soo Thunderbirds of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League in scoring as a 16-year old in 2019-2020.
Back to Porco, the speedy winger said his all-out training schedule will carry on.
“It has been a full day of on and off ice training for all of us guys every day and that is going to continue until the season starts,” said Porco, who added that “I also try to get in some golf before working out every day.”
Meanwhile, around the OHL, Kitchener Rangers coach and general manager and Mike McKenzie relayed a well thought out message following the return to play announcement from league commissioner David Branch.
“I think everyone understands right now, with what we are dealing with in the world, nothing is for certain. But for planning purposes and clarity, it is nice for the players to circle a date on their calendar and our staff as well,” McKenzie began.
“It is nice, from a planning purpose, to kind of get that date and hopefully when that date arrives we are playing hockey. But we will see,” he added.
Meanwhile, McKenzie says the extra time at home is a good chance for players to work on themselves.
“This might be the only time in their hockey career ever that they have a six, seven, eight month window where you are not playing games and not putting your body through the grind of a season and you can really almost use a full year to get stronger and work on your game,” he pointed out.
“I know they all want to play games probably because that’s the fun part but I think there’s definitely a lot of benefits that the guys with the right mindset are going to take advantage of.”
McKenzie, meantime, said he is “cautiously optimistic” that the OHL will be able to meet its December 1 return to play intention.
“It would be awesome if we could start on December 1, but I think everyone is in the same boat in feeling it needs to be a safe environment for everyone involved,” he said.
“That is the main priority right now … getting back to safe environments in all aspects in life and the same goes for junior hockey,” McKenzie concluded.
From a team ownership standpoint, Soo Greyhounds president Tim Lukenda welcomed the news of the planned December 1 start date.
“It allows us to focus our energies and activities on a specific date,” Lukenda told Postmedia. “This is very good … it is light at the end of the tunnel … I am very happy to see that we have a date we can all work towards.”
Lukenda added that December 1 is “very realistic” start date.
As for how many fans will be allowed in OHL arenas such as the Greyhounds home rink, GFL Memorial Gardens, Lukenda noted that “we are going in assuming that we will have reasonable occupancy by December 1.
“The hope is that we will have fans in the arena … and that is either full capacity or limited attendance. We will continue to work with health officials,” said Lukenda.
Meanwhile, the owner of an OHL contender in waiting team provided his careful thoughts on a planned return to play of the major junior loop.
“We are obviously very excited, but it’s guarded optimism,” Kingston Frontenacs president Doug Springer told Postmedia. “The fact that we have a date now, the fact that the players, coaches, everybody can start to plan and get excited for when training camp will eventually open up and then the regular season, well, that is exciting.”
Springer said he anticipates bringing the players back to Kingston for a two to three week training camp in early to mid November. But he noted that the OHL will make the ultimate decision on what is possible.
“Nobody is going to miss anything from a schooling point of view,” Springer said. “That has been a big part of the plan. No schooling will be jeopardized at all.”
As for leaving their social circles in the middle of the first semester of school, Springer told journalist Steph Crosier of the Kingston Whig Standard that players would all rather be with their team to begin with.
“That being said, it’s making the best situation possible based on the crazy times that we have right now,” Springer added.
Over in Guelph, Storm coach and general manager George Burnett offered the reminder that issues remain before the first puck on the 2020-2021 season is dropped.
“Obviously the big issues are the United States border and the buildings that the teams play in. There are so many things that will continue to be discussed with the government and health officials.
“Everybody’s safety is most important … everybody’s safety. And that’s whether you’re staff, billets, players or fans,” Burnett stressed.
In Sudbury, Wolves general manager Rob Papineau, called the return to play announcement “outstanding.
“You remember that day (in March) like it was yesterday, when the team went off to Peterborough and we got the call and had to turn the bus around.
“At that time, everyone was optimistic that we would be back in a couple of weeks, and now, we are sitting here in August and the guys did not get to finish their overage seasons, the playoffs, and it such was a tough time for all of us.
“But to be able to look forward now to a date when we can have our players back playing in the arena and to have people being able to cheer the Wolves on again, is beyond exciting,” Papineau told Postmedia.
Training camps for all 20 OHL teams are expected to begin around the middle of November.
Meanwhile, over the next four months, the OHL says it will continue to work with the Ontario government and health agencies to finalize outstanding issues such as safe attendance at venues and cross-border travel for teams and players.
Of the OHL’s 20 teams, three are based in the United States — Flint Firebirds, Saginaw Spirit and Erie Otters.
“We are looking forward to getting back to playing hockey but are committed to ensuring that we do so in a manner that is safe and healthy for our players, officials, families, billets, teams, staff, fans and the community,” relayed aforementioned OHL commissioner David Branch.
“Players will remain at home until the season resumes and teams will work closely with them on both their academic studies and overseeing their on and off ice development.
“In addition, the league will liaise with our facilities to ensure that our venues are safe for our return to play,” Branch added.
Branch noted that the OHL wants to return to normal five on five player action with regular roster sizes, though training camp planning for November may need to feature fewer skaters.
The commissioner also said the league’s intention is to keep players at home for as long as possible before the December 1 restart date and to reduce travel and hotel stays and cluster teams regionally and geographically.
Those clusters are expected to include the league’s three northern Ontario teams (Soo Greyhounds, Sudbury Wolves and North Bay Battalion) and its three American clubs (Flint Firebirds, Saginaw Spirit and Erie Otters.)
“What we have always looked at and strived for in all our decisions is that we are one league,” Branch said. “Certainly, there has been no discussion of being less than 20 teams strong. We recognize the challenge of the (Canada-United States) border and have created some time in the next several months where we can have some resolution to that.
“There are a lot of things being considered and it is our desire to present the game as we have always played it. But we know we have to remain flexible and focused with adjustments based on the environment and government and health agencies,” Branch pointed out.
To be sure, the OHL is primarily a gate driven league. If teams are not permitted to seat thousands of fans and open concession and merchandise stands, it would most certainly be a major financial challenge.
At any rate, the planned 2020-2021 season will include the a 64-game schedule (down from the usual 68) and the normal playoff format that will feature 16 of the league’s 20 teams.
The regular season is scheduled to end on Thursday April 29, 2021.
The 102nd edition of the Memorial Cup tournament is slated to be played June 17-27, 2021 and will be hosted by either the Oshawa Generals or Soo Greyhounds.