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DeGray wonders if an OHL return is worth the risk

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Plenty of questions once again surround the Ontario Hockey League as February’s optimism for a return to play has turned to April uncertainty.

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Dale DeGray seemed interested in asking the bigger questions Thursday. Bigger than those of scheduling, bubbles, roster construction and arena capacity.

“We can all say yes it would be great to have the kids play, but at what cost? Look at the numbers, right? They just keep going up. I don’t know. What’s the bigger risk? Not playing, or playing?” DeGray asked.

The Canadian Hockey League announced the Memorial Cup would be shelved for the second-straight season Tuesday.

Thursday, Ontario’s Minister of Sport Lisa MacLeod said it would be “irresponsible” to send young athletes into a season now given the current public health landscape.

A return to play was close in February, but now, with the case counts and hospitalizations reaching record highs in a variant-fuelled third wave, OHL hockey is tumbling down the list of priorities.

Earlier this year, Owen Sound Attack defenceman Andrew Perrott became the de facto voice of the players when he wrote a letter poignantly expressing the impact and frustrations of a lost season.

Perrott considers himself one of the lucky ones because he was able to travel to Slovakia and play in the country’s second-tier men’s professional league.

But when speaking with friends back home, and players he only knew through their battles on the ice, he began to realize the feelings of depression, anxiousness and lack of motivation were widespread among his peers.

“I just got a little mad and almost sad for them. So I just wrote the letter. It just kind of came out of me,” Perrott said at the time.

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DeGray said he thought the letter was fantastic, and it opened his eyes to some of the things Perrott was experiencing.

“It really made me look into the fact that we were really the only league not playing,” DeGray said. “Listen, there are a lot of frustrated kids for sure, and parents, but I’ll say it again – at what cost do you move forward?”

Perhaps with the CHL’s big prize off the table, the OHL is able to get more creative in a return-to-play plan. Without the constraints of equalling the WHL and QMJHL in their rules for a return – in an effort to maintain some semblance of competitive integrity – the OHL can open up the idea-box a little bit.

Player showcases, smaller regional tournaments, skills competitions, basic team-run training camps with scrimmages – the list is long and the options plentiful.

“Obviously the smaller your group the better you are, so to me, it’s do you get together in small little bubbles? You’re going to want as little contact with the whole league as possible – if any. To me that would make sense if you’re going to do something,” DeGray said.

Ontarians are facing an emergency lockdown until May 6.

By next fall, most hope if not expect those involved in the OHL will be vaccinated, and a return-to-normal deemed safe.

But until then, the risks could never be completely ruled out.

Recent outbreaks involving NHL clubs in Vancouver, Philadelphia and Buffalo showed the kind of havoc the virus can have even when spread throughout a group of healthy elite athletes.

MacLeod said Thursday “we will not be putting young athletes at risk”.

The minister’s statement leads to another question:

“Do people get put into the hospital? Is there a death? Is that where you draw the line? It’s the unknown, right?” DeGray asked.

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