TORONTO — The Ontario Hockey League made the only realistic choice left on the table Tuesday — pulling the plug on its 2020-21 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the provincial government extending a stay-at-home order through May 20 and the health-care system struggling to cope with a ferocious third wave energized by highly contagious variants of concern, time had simply run out.
"A couple of weeks ago, we received permission from the chief medical officer and the premier that we could return and play," league commissioner David Branch said on a video conference call with reporters. "On the eve of that announcement, the COVID-19 conditions dramatically worsened.
"Since then, we've had an extended stay-at-home order, the increasing severity of the variants ... we just couldn't safely return to play this season."
That decision now made, a host of new questions face stakeholders pivoting to confront fresh uncertainties, including the ramifications for players — most haven't take part in a competitive game since March 2020 — and the fiscal health of the circuit's 20 franchises battered by a shutdown that will stretch at least 18 months if the OHL can resume this fall.
"There are some challenges," he said after the OHL became the only one of Canada's three major junior hockey leagues not to play this season. "We're 20 teams strong, we'll support each other."
Branch said the plan was to hold a shortened season in four hub cities in 2021, a model used by some divisions in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Western Hockey League.
The QMJHL started its season around its usual date in October with Quebec teams staying in the province and Maritime teams strictly playing against each other. The campaign, however, was interrupted several times by COVID-19 outbreaks. Teams played a maximum of 40 regular-season games, down from the usual 64, but the league plans to crown a champion.
The WHL, which cancelled its playoffs Monday, started earlier this year with teams playing within their divisions, and some setting up in hubs.
The Memorial Cup national championship, meanwhile, has also been nixed for a second straight year.
"We saw this coming," Ottawa 67's head coach Andre Tourigny said of the OHL announcement in a phone interview with The Canadian Press. "I'm devastated for our players who played their last junior game more than 13 months ago. That's where my mind is. I'm devastated for those guys.
"That's a tough pill to swallow."
Branch was asked what he would say to OHLers wondering why their league never got off the ground when the other two did.
"I'm not sure were can necessarily justify that," he said. "They're young people. They've got their goals and aspirations."
Branch said the OHL had to wait its turn after Ontario approved the return of the NHL's Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs, as well as their farm teams, under strict health and safety protocols.
"To the credit of our owners, they were committed to doing whatever it took within reason to meet those high standards," he said. "But that could just not be (done) in a timely fashion.
"And then in the end, it was taken away from us."
So what will be the impact on athletes unable to compete for well over a year during a key stretch of their development? While players in other Canadian junior leagues, along with the USHL and NCAA south of the border, saw game action throughout this season, most of their Ontario counterparts were idle.
In short, no one really knows, and we might not for some time.
"Next year there will be some guys that perform above what people were expecting and we'll say, 'OK maybe the year off helped him because he could train and grow,'" Tourigny said. "And then there's some guys that will underperform and we will right away blame COVID.
"One thing I do know — the player who gets drafted or didn't get drafted, if they belong at the next level, they will find their way, and teams will find them. You can't hide. We often say, 'It's not a sprint, it's a marathon.' I think that will be proven again."
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Alexander Kerfoot, who played junior-A in B.C. before going the NCAA route, said he feels for everyone involved, but added there could be unseen benefits.
"It's a good opportunity for young kids to take advantage of this time and work on their game," he said. "They're not getting the game situation stuff that they normally would, but you've still got time to work on your body, work on your game and progress, and that's what it's all about at that age."
Branch was on the same page, indicating a lost season shouldn't impact a player's ability to move forward, pointing to something he used to tell the teams he coached.
"I'd say to my players, 'You will reach your level just like water reaches its level,'" Branch said. "We have seen time and again players who, through mishaps, misfortune — injuries, largely — have missed substantial periods of time, have returned to play at a very high level.
"That's not going to be without some extra work ... but I don't believe that any player will lose an opportunity to advance his hockey career as far as he would like to based on what's occurred here this past hockey season."
Branch said the OHL, in conjunction with the country's other top leagues, is looking at holding showcase events for draft-eligible and over-age players to help get eyeballs pointed in their direction.
"An area now we're going to focus on," he said. "Whether or not we'll be able to do that with inter-provincial travel regulations and restrictions and other such things around the pandemic remains to be seen."
While bitterly disappointing for junior players across Ontario, Branch said the fact younger people are getting sick and hospitalized with COVID-19 variants was something the league wrestled with as it tried to work towards a solution.
"What is the long-term effect if a young person should get the virus?" he asked. "I don't think anyone really knows.
"I can only hope when we look back and players get on with their lives, they'll come to understand, and maybe even more so respect, that their best interests were looked after."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 20, 2021.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press