Delayed start proves OHL yearns to get its old game back

When the Ontario Hockey League finally returns, it wants to look the same as it did before COVID-19 knocked it off the ice in mid-March.

Sarnia Sting's Theo Hill (16) battles Sudbury Wolves' Jack Thompson (22) in the third period at Progressive Auto Sales Arena in Sarnia, Ont., on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020. Mark Malone/Chatham Daily News/Postmedia Network

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When the Ontario Hockey League finally returns, it wants to look the same as it did before COVID-19 knocked it off the ice in mid-March.

That’s the clear message that will be delivered Thursday when the top junior circuit officially announces its target starting date for the 2020-2021 season will be pushed back to Feb. 4, according to league sources. The reason is to provide more runway to allow for border crossing, full rosters, fans in the stands and a robust style of play that permits bodychecking.

Those are all significant hurdles still to clear. It’s obvious the league didn’t feel it could hit its original Dec. 1 launch plan while keeping everyone involved healthy and safe in the midst of the pandemic’s second wave.

Under the new structure, the regular season will be chopped down to 40 games and only eight of the 20 teams will qualify for a reduced playoffs.

Training camps will begin Jan. 23 and a couple of exhibition games will run on the following weekend. American and European players will have to arrive by Jan. 8 to start the federal government’s mandatory two-week quarantine for arrivals.

It’s a frustrating decision, of course. This means – in a best-case scenario – the OHL is looking at nearly 11 months between games.

But it’s also the right call.

Back when the early December date was in play, OHL commissioner David Branch indicated he would be closely watching the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and its early October start to see if it held hints on what to expect in this province.

The most optimistic thing you can say about the Quebec league is that it hasn’t pulled the plug yet despite considerable setbacks.

There have been 38 positive COVID-19 cases connected to a handful of its teams. Because of postponements, some clubs are around the 10-game mark, while others have played only twice. It’s already going to be difficult to play catch-up – and they’re only a month into their schedule.

The Quebec league was able to start because the owners felt they could operate without paying customers for the short term with some provincial government assistance. They got it after rearranging some fighting rules.

They also don’t have any American teams. The Western league, which plans to resume in early January, can keep its five American teams isolated if needed.

But the OHL’s trio – Erie, Flint and Saginaw – isn’t enough to form a viable independent division and there is no appetite yet to find centres in the province to play host to them. An open border is the only remaining option.

None of the 20 teams – whether they average 2,000 fans a night or pack it in like London’s 9,000 a game – are making any money right now. They still have bills coming in, including school packages, disability insurance, off-ice training and payroll.

The financial suffering comes in different degrees and most are still trying to live up to their community commitments. The London Knights, for example, donated $100,000 this week toward the Child Life Program at Children’s Hospital at the London Health Sciences Centre.

The hope is that by February, fans will be allowed in the buildings and that a good portion of them will feel comfortable actually coming back.

That’s still pretty fuzzy, though.

That dead-of-winter target date can’t be considered make or break. Nothing is off the table until the Memorial Cup – which will be held in either Oshawa or Sault Ste. Marie June 17-27 – is no longer feasible.

Some owners are willing to maintain hope right down to the last month just to have a semblance of a season. That would mean a 10-day training camp, a bubble for some preliminary games and then hold a quick playoff to determine a league champion.

But don’t bet on it happening without full access to every player, at least some fans in the stands and government-approved hitting.

Once you can’t reach those benchmarks, then it’s time to cancel another season.

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