CHL leagues at mercy of pandemic, politics while formulating return-to-play plans

·5 min read

Knowing the Western Hockey League plans to begin play again on Jan. 8 has brought a sigh of relief from Zack Ostapchuk and some of the other players he's training with in St. Albert, Alta.

"I think everybody is pretty excited," said Ostapchuk, a 17-year-old forward with the Vancouver Giants. "We were all a little worried that we weren't ever going to start. Now that we've got a date, the energy on the ice and in the dressing room is completely changed. Everybody's positive now, but I just want to get going."

Ostapchuk's enthusiasm may still be tempered by the realities faced by the people operating Canada's three major junior hockey leagues as they deal with the issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We never know from day to day what the situation is going to be," said Gilles Courteau, commissioner of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. "Every day there's something new."

The 18-team QMJHL opened its season Oct. 2, but about two weeks later suspended play in both of its Quebec-based divisions because of positive tests on two teams. Play continued for five of the six teams in the league's Maritimes division.

The Ontario Hockey League hopes its 20 teams can begin play in December but "there's no specific date at this point," commissioner David Branch said.

The Canadian Hockey League announced March 12 it was cancelling the remaining games in the 2020 regular season due to COVID-19. A few weeks later the Memorial Cup, scheduled for Kelowna, B.C., was cancelled.

Players, team officials and executives across Canada were left wondering when junior hockey would return.

"My whole summer has been getting questions I can't answer," said Barclay Parneta, general manager of the Vancouver Giants.

Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images
Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

The closed border between Canada and the United States creates problems for both the OHL and WHL which have U.S. based teams.

Travel restrictions within Canada, protecting players' health and rising infection rates in some provinces have presented more hoops league officials have tried to jump through.

"Without question, it's the most difficult challenge I've ever faced both domestically and internationally in hockey in 40 years," said Ron Robison, commissioner of the 22-team WHL.

"We never envisioned this. But we are in this together and we have to find ways to deal with it under the circumstances."

Leagues still aren't sure exactly how many games each team will play. None have finalized their playoff plans and details for the Memorial Cup haven't been announced.

A reduced number of fans can attend games in some parts of the country but might not be allowed in other buildings.

The QMJHL hopes to resume playing on Oct. 28 but Courteau said talks are continuing with the Quebec government. Six of the 12 teams are located in red zones, where organized sport is prohibited.

"It's not determined yet, so I cannot give you an answer," he said.

The league said Thursday that a player with the Drummondville Voltigeurs had tested positive for COVID-19.

Provincial involvement

Politicians are also throwing a few bodychecks.

In Ontario, provincial sport minister Lisa MacLeod has suggested the OHL should eliminate bodychecking and physical contact if it wants to hold a safe season.

"There's a lot of things that we are discussing with the provincial government," Branch said. "The whole package in terms of our return to play will become a critical piece. We'll just see where that ends up."

In Quebec, Enrico Ciccone, a former NHL enforcer and now a Liberal Member of the National Assembly has presented a bill to prohibit fighting in sports for athletes younger than 18.

Courteau said QMJHL officials are studying the proposed bill.

Across the country, owners – who already lost revenue from last year's cancelled games and playoffs – are now facing the possibility of losing more money because of no fans.

"The losses are very, very significant," Robison said. "It could threaten the ability for teams to be viable moving forward."

Courteau said the 12 Quebec-based teams in the QMJHL will receive $1 million each from the provincial government to offset some of their losses.

The league's six Maritimes teams have been allowing fans, ranging from 18 to 25 per cent of the building capacity.

Peter McCabe/The Canadian Press
Peter McCabe/The Canadian Press

To help formulate its return the WHL appointed Dr. Dhiren Naidu as chief medical advisor. Naidu served as the NHL medical director for the Edmonton hub used during this summer's NHL playoffs

The WHL has teams stretched across four provinces and two U.S. states.

"There's lots of challenges associated with the different jurisdictions and the conditions [of] the level of cases and how that's impacted on the communities where we operate, and the facilities for that matter," Robison said.

"We're all aware of the fact that we're dealing with very unique circumstances. We're trying to do our best to work our way through this."

Ostapchuk said the players understand and appreciate the efforts being made for them.

"We just want to play," he said.

CHL return-to-play plans

A look at how the three major junior hockey leagues hope to return to play during COVID-19

Quebec Major Junior Hockey League

Date: League began play on Oct. 2, but Quebec-based teams paused about two weeks later after positive tests on two teams. Hopes to resume Oct. 28

Schedule: The 18-team league is divided into two Quebec divisions of six teams each plus six teams in a Maritimes division. The teams hope to play a 60-game schedule within their own divisions

Playoff Format: TBA:

Fans: Maritime Division teams have been allowing fans, ranging from 18 to 25 per cent of the building capacity.

Western Hockey League:

Date. Jan.8.

Schedule: The 22-team league will be split into four divisions. Seven teams from Saskatchewan and Manitoba will play in the East Division. Five Alberta teams will play in the Central Division. Five B.C. teams play in the B.C. Division. Four US teams will play in U.S. Division. Teams will only play within their division. Exact number of games to be determined but up to 52 games possible.

Playoff Format: TBA.

Fans: Will depend on different jurisdictions.

Ontario Hockey League:

Date: Hopefully December but no specific date yet.

Schedule: Still being developed for the 20-team league, with three U.S. franchises.

Playoff Format: TBA

Fans: To be determined.