If the Ontario Hockey League wants to stage a 2020-21 season, it’s going to have to be an extremely irregular one.
Ontario’s Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, Lisa MacLeod, said Wednesday that one of her most pressing concerns is the OHL’s “return-to-play plan.” The league — which is aiming for an early-December start date to the campaign — and its players are going to have a long, strange path ahead if they wants to make this season happen.
“It would be safe to say that body contact, unless it’s incremental, will not be permitted as a result of COVID-19,” MacLeod said. “That would pose a challenge in terms of how they amend their play.”
MacLeod said that her ministry and the league are in close, constant contact and are trying desperately to figure out a restart plan for the 20-team league and its hundreds of players. She added that the OHL hasn’t yet requested any type of financial support from the province during the prolonged stoppage in play due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We work incredibly well with them, (OHL commissioner) David Branch is a part of our ministerial advisory committee as well, so they’re well aware of the health crisis that we find ourselves in in the second wave,” MacLeod said.
The Ontario Hockey League said in a statement that it won’t comment on the negotiations with the Ontario government, which are ongoing, according to the Canadian Press.
Aside from the obvious challenges of asking elite-level teenage athletes to essentially make a 180-degree shift in the way they’ve played the sport for nearly a decade at that point — body contact and checking being a central facet —other obstacles are dimming the OHL’s path back to any resemblance of normalcy.
One of those challenges will be overcoming border closures that would likely force the league’s three American teams, including Erie, Flint and Saginaw, to either move across the border to Canada for the season, or play out the campaign against only their fellow U.S.-based squads.
Also, two of the OHL’s more prominent franchises — the GTA-based Mississauga Steelheads and the Ottawa 67’s and — are in what are currently considered "hot zones" where the second wave of COVID-19 has seen case numbers rival those of early spring when the pandemic was at its peak.
Things don’t look all too promising in the short term for one of Canada’s flagpole institutions and one of the top feeder leagues to the NHL.
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