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OHL Commissioner David Branch: ‘Right now, our league is planning to open up on time’

Jim Van Horne/980 CFPL

During the COVID-19 pandemic, plans change quickly and often.

Trying to figure out what will be happening at the end of any given day has been a challenge.

Planning has become an entirely new concept. It’s like being asked what you would like for your birthday 10 years from now. How can you get your head around something with so many unknowns?

The Ontario Hockey League is one of many sports leagues trying to determine its next steps.

For all of the uncertainty that does exist, there is no fault in having hope, and OHL Commissioner David Branch has a very optimistic view.

“Right now, our league is planning to open up on time,” Branch said in an April 17 interview with Global News Radio-980 CFPL.

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“That said, we also recognize that we will create some wiggle room at the start of the season if we must, and at the end of the day, if we have to make adjustments based on health conditions or government sidelines, we of course will.”

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Eyebrows were raised in the major junior hockey circles after Quebec Major Junior Hockey League commissioner Gilles Courteau floated the idea that his league may not begin play until January 2021 in an interview with Stephane Leroux of RDS.

“I’m aware of what Mr. Courteau stated,” Branch said. “I haven’t had an opportunity to speak to him about it. I’m not certain if there are certain issues that their league has, say in the area of arena facilities and when they can open up.”

Branch did not use the same kind of time frame for the OHL.

“We’re not building out any contingency plan at this time by way of dates or when we will start.”

As professional leagues contemplate all sorts of possibilities to adhere to physical distancing and player and personnel safety, Branch made it clear that options such as empty arenas cannot be a consideration for the Ontario Hockey League.

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In terms of playing without spectators at our level — that just can’t work.

“We are a gate-driven league,” he said. “Eighty to 85 per cent of our revenue comes from live gates. We have to hope that we can get back and have spectators and continue to receive the great support that we have received over the last number of years.”

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As with so many other organizations, the conversations are frequent and ongoing.

“We have what we call an executive council made up of five owners that I have been meeting with by phone weekly. We’re having a full governors call next week. We have committees that are constantly meeting … with our marketing committee we have started a theme entitled ‘Back to Business’ and at the right time we have to get back at it and that will be a bit of a read and react, as they say.”

Some OHL business has actually fit perfectly into the confines of stopping the spread of COVID-19. The 2020 OHL Priority Selection was held on April 4 in much the same way that it would have had the world not been dealing with a pandemic. Since 2001, it has been conducted online with players and their families following from home and teams sequestered in rooms in their arenas and offices to make their selections.

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Team personnel got to stay home this time and used meeting apps and software to join together. The entire event drew a massive following that broke records for impressions online.

We established an all-time high of 6.5 million-plus,” said Branch.

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And for the next few months with the exception of the playoffs and the Memorial Cup tournament, Branch points out that there will be other signs of normal.

We’re looking forward to our league awards which will be announced through the first few weeks of May. Our Import Draft is June 30th. There is a lot of things that will cause us to be active and looking forward to getting back to playing on the ice.”

Ultimately that is the time every junior hockey fan is waiting for.