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Mike Stubbs: OHL’s potential start date offers a ‘decent dose of hope’

Flint, Mich. - The London Knights swarm Luke Evangelista after his goal gave London a 4-3 win in overtime over the Flint Firebirds on January 4, 2020.
Flint, Mich. - The London Knights swarm Luke Evangelista after his goal gave London a 4-3 win in overtime over the Flint Firebirds on January 4, 2020. Jim Van Horne/980 CFPL

The Ontario Hockey League has set Dec. 1 as a potential start date for a 2020-21 season.

As with anything since the early weeks of March, the announcement has to be taken as tentative.

In a statement from the league, the word “planning” appears in the very first line.

That means it may not be time to piece together a fancy start line or make ready a big green flag to wave but the information has rippled through the hockey world and will stand as a beacon for Major Junior fans.

The American Hockey League is planning a Dec. 4 kickoff. Minor hockey teams are on the ice now for skills and training and the National Hockey League continues to enjoy solid success in the hub cities of Toronto and Edmonton.

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A date like the one the OHL unveiled on Wednesday allows the league’s 20 clubs to plan for a return to hockey.

Right now the objective is to hold a 64-game regular season (a normal season is 68 games) that will run from Dec. 1, 2020, to April 29, 2021. A total of 16 teams will qualify for the playoffs and the Memorial Cup tournament has been scheduled for June 17-27 in either Oshawa, Ont., or Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

Both cities have bid to host Major Junior hockey’s marquee event.

Read more: London Knights add 16 new players in 2020 OHL Priority Selection

The London Knights were a team that was gunning for a spot in the 2020 Memorial Cup tournament that was due to take place in Kelowna, B.C. this past May. They can’t rewind time to when last season stopped, but there can now be a roll back based on what the OHL wants to do.

“Now we can kind of work backwards,” admitted Knights Associate General Manager Rob Simpson. “We can focus on main [training] camp and how it will work in a completely different environment.”

Training camp dates and parameters will be unveiled at a later time.

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“Everyone is pretty excited with return of major sports leagues,” continued Simpson. “And now our season has a start date that through a tough time where people have been at home and even laid off can maybe allow for some light at end of tunnel.”

Unless Game 7 of the OHL Championship series goes to overtime, every Ontario Hockey League season ends with a final horn or buzzer that kicks off a massive celebration.

Just over a year ago, the Guelph Storm poured off their bench flinging gloves and sticks and helmets in the air as they enjoyed the elation of winning it all and earning a place in the Memorial Cup tournament.

In 2020, the OHL season actually came to a close as two games ended simultaneously.

At 26 minutes after 9 o’clock on Wednesday, March 12, the Kitchener Rangers left their bench to congratulate goalie Jacob Ingham after a 7-4 win in Guelph and Greyhounds’ fans stood applauding in Sault Ste. Marie following a 4-1 win by the ‘Hounds on their home ice against Flint.

Compared with what happened after the Storm defeated Ottawa in the last OHL game played in June 2019, those two endings and the one a few minutes earlier in the other game that night played in Owen Sound seemed muted.

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Every one of those players expected to be back on the ice the next day for practice and back playing another game in a day or two.

Nothing was supposed to be over.

Read more: Five London Knights recognized with OHL team honours

But the 2019-20 season officially ended days later. First, the weekend slate of games was postponed. Then, on March 23, as the real grip of the COVID-19 pandemic was being felt, the official word was given that the Ontario Hockey League, in partnership with the Western Hockey League and the QMJHL, had cancelled the rest of the year.

Looking back at all that has happened since then, it is easy to call it the right decision.

Not a single OHL player or team personnel had contracted the virus. Players went home to their families. Team activities went from gearing up for the playoffs to preparing for the 2020 OHL Priority Selection which was held on Saturday, April 4, and became one of the only normal activities held at that time in the entire sports world.

Branch has stated several times since that the league cannot play in empty arenas.

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“We are a gate-driven league — 80 to 85 per cent of our revenue comes from live gates,” Branch told Global News back in April. “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.”

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

In his statement Wednesday, Branch kept the optimistic tone for the upcoming season that he has maintained since making the decision with the QMJHL and WHL to end last year.

“We are looking forward to getting back to playing hockey, but are committed to ensuring that we do so in a manner that is safe and healthy for our players, officials, families, billets, teams, staff, fans and the community,” said OHL Commissioner David Branch said in the league statement.

“Players will remain at home until the season resumes and teams will work closely with them on both their academic studies and overseeing their on and off-ice development. In addition, the League will liaise with our facilities to ensure that our venues are safe for our return to play.”

Whether spectators can attend games or what capacity will be permitted will still come down to decisions made by governments and public health officials.

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For now, this announcement gives fans of major junior hockey and team operators a decent dose of hope.

We’ve all had to learn a little something about certainty during this pandemic.

Certainty used to be concrete and infallible. It now feels fleeting and fragile. But hope remains a constant and it is with hope that the Ontario Hockey League is moving forward.

Note: The London Knights have launched another 50/50 draw in support of the St. Joeseph’s COVID Relief Fund.

Tickets can be purchased at www.knights5050.com

There will be an early bird draw featuring two autographed London Knights jerseys for anyone who put