The Ontario Hockey League announced Thursday it will push back its “return to play” timeline at least another two months as the COVID-19 pandemic ramps back up in the province.
OHL teams originally slated to start a shortened regular season on Dec. 1 will now pencil in a Feb. 4 puck drop with training camps set to begin Jan. 23.
Owen Sound Attack General Manager Dale DeGray said he was in favour of the league pushing back the start date to a more realistic target, but said it remains to be seen how the provincial government and OHL will finalize all of the details in the coming months.
The current plan has the regular-season schedule cut down to 40 games ending May 8. According to a news release, teams will play primarily against opponents in their geographic region to reduce travel in consideration of the health and safety of all players and staff.
Details concerning the structure of team alignment will be made available upon release of the 2020-21 OHL Regular Season schedule, a league release stated.
When the shortened regular season concludes a total of eight teams will qualify for the 2021 OHL Playoffs and pursue the J. Ross. Robertson Cup. That number is down from the typical 16.
The OHL Playoffs will consist of three rounds, the first being a best-of-five opening round, followed by two best-of-seven formats to crown a league champion no later than June 14.
The 2021 Memorial Cup is then scheduled to begin June 17 in either Oshawa or Sault Ste. Marie.
The OHL’s news release made no mention of pressing outstanding questions in regards to the possibility of fans attending the games or the league’s three American teams’ ability to cross the border to compete with the rest of the Ontario-based league.
There was also no mention of possible rule changes to limit body contact – a suggestion floated by Lisa MacLeod, the province’s sports minister – or any other in-game changes meant to help prevent the transmission of the virus.
DeGray said some changes the league may be forced to make due to the pandemic could have staying power.
“You know what, you could say, hey, playing with no-contact is fantastic. I don’t think so, but you know what I’m saying,” DeGray said. “The bigger thing from this is we may find some safety precautions that we’ve neglected for so long, or didn’t even think of, where they might just become part of protocol moving forward.”
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League did make changes to its fighting rules to get government financial assistance and approval for an October start but has still seen several cases among its players.
The Western Hockey League has also delayed its season, but with a targeted start date of Jan. 8.
In Owen Sound, Grey Bruce Health Service’s 75-bed field hospital remains on the arena floor at the Harry Lumley Bayshore Community Centre – the home of the Attack – and will for a while yet according to local officials due to the current status of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario.
The field hospital has been set up at the Lumley-Bayshore since mid-April and was constructed after a provincial mandate directed communities to make efforts to maximize their capacity to care for their communities.
The site is equipped with 75 medical beds with medical gases (oxygen and suction), individual patient areas, X-ray, medical lab, pharmacy, washrooms, staff areas, showers and more.
No patients have been taken to or treated at the temporary hospital so far.
As far as the Attack players, DeGray said they’re all training in different ways. No signed OHL player can take part in games with any other team other than those loaned to professional European clubs.
DeGray said he thinks everyone will be on an even playing-field when hockey does return to OHL rinks, but that players who geared up training for a Dec. 1 start may now have to take a few weeks off to reset.
“I have no doubt that the kids are in great shape. I’m disappointed that we’re not playing early December, but I think this is a more realistic approach to the season,” he said. “The further out it is I think the safer it is to say we may meet that deadline, so I’m much happier with this date than the December date.”