Just before 8:15 p.m. on March 8, 2020, a red light shone in behind a net and a horn blared in Budweiser Gardens. A line of London Knight players skated past their bench through a stream of high-fives.
Chelsea Dagger by the Fratellis began to play and almost all of the 8,953 fans in attendance who had stayed to see the final moments of a Sunday evening clash between two of the best teams in the Ontario Hockey League rose and applauded. Most of the young faces in the stands danced in what has been a familiar celebration at Knights games for years.
It was the 133rd time the scene had played out in London during the 2019-20 OHL season. The goal completed a 3-1 victory over the Oshawa Generals. Liam Foudy scored and added an assist in the game. Connor McMichael’s 47th of the year moved him to within three goals of hitting 50. The win was London’s seventh in a row and 26th of their past 29 games.
The Knights were playing as well as anyone.
The final 1:32 of the game drained away, the players left the London bench and surrounded the game’s first star, Brett Brochu. They skated to centre ice to salute the fans and then the Knights filed off one by one enjoying the feelings that come from an exhaustive weekend sweep. Next up was Flint on Friday.
Everyone in that London dressing room had heard about the new coronavirus. The one that had been identified almost everywhere, including the city that they were currently. Still, the level of concern was not something that made it the main topic of conversation as everyone took off their equipment, showered and then walked out into what was still a mild March night after an 11-degree day.
No one knew that three days later a test for that new coronavirus in Oklahoma City would turn up a positive result for Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz. The test that brought a scene on the court before the Jazz and Thunder were about to meet on March 11 at almost the same minute that the world was able to look at a picture of the glassy-eyed famous faces of Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson who were confirming that they had also tested positive while in Australia.
From there a wave as big as Cow Bombie carried across the NBA, where Commissioner Adam Silver quickly suspended their season indefinitely. That same wave saw the NHL, MLS and Major League Baseball do the same thing. The next day, OHL Commissioner David Branch announced the suspension of the regular season. Six days after that, as everyone everywhere continued to come to grips with the fact that COVID-19 was unlike anything they had witnessed, the 2020-21 Ontario Hockey League season was cancelled.
It has now been exactly a calendar year between London Knights games and there is no schedule in sight for another one at the moment.
As today arrived, nine other OHL teams mark the 365th day without a game. As this week continues, eight more will mark the anniversary. Hamilton and Mississauga are at a year and a day.
Over that time, there have been hopes for a resumption of play. Last year was lost but a return to the ice for some portion of a 2020-21 regular season has not been ruled out.
But where exactly does it stand?
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League has powered through stops and starts. It has hubbed and bubbled and its season has been far from perfect from a play or, certainly, a profitability standpoint. But it has existed. It has standings and statistics. It has provided a stage for draft-eligible players.
The other arm of the Canadian Hockey League has begun its return out west. The WHL’s Alberta teams have played two weekends of games. The league has administered more than 600 tests for COVID-19 that have come back with 600 negatives. Over the next three weeks, the teams in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the U.S. Division and the five clubs in British Columbia will begin games.
Other junior leagues have resumed or have definite plans. The ECHL and American Hockey League have a regular season in full swing.
Why not the OHL?
That has become an excellent question.
It has produced a couple of familiar refrains:
The line, “Everything is on the table,” has been used.
In the most recent statement in response to a letter written by Owen Sound Attack defenceman and former London Knight Andrew Perrot, the OHL wrote, “We are working closely with the government on how best to facilitate and execute a safe return to play.”
And yet when you hear from a key government official such as Ontario’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams, the prognosis appears as murky as ever.
Williams responded to a question about the Ontario Hockey League returning on March 4 with a meandering two minute and 34 second response which can be heard below.
His answer included, “We’ve had the OHL on our discussions for a period of time and much like we have with the NHL and more recently the AHL and the WHL and different ones, because what we’ve been wanting them to have is to emulate the successful NHL model if you may.”
Williams talked about how the American states where teams in the Ontario Hockey League are located present challenges given what he referred to as “much higher rates of community transmission” and how that managing that would require, “a fair amount of infrastructure and a fair amount of investment and cost that leagues like the NHL can handle.” (Michigan reported 1,526 new cases on March 4 for a population of 9.98 million. Ontario reported 994 new cases for a population of 14.5 million.)
Williams raised concerns about the resources that the professional leagues have to try to ensure safety. He then brought up the threat of “long-hauler syndrome” and said that he would hate to “have a young, potential NHL star be sidelined career-wise because of a COVID case.”
The OHL held a meeting involving team representatives two days prior to Williams’ response.
Nothing has been made public from that meeting and no further information has been made available by the province.
That leaves the Ontario Hockey League in a very similar position to the one it has been in for much of the past calendar year; in discussion with government officials and teams on how to address challenges like player safety, a border closed to team travel and an inability to play in front of paying customers.
There is still time to create and carry out a framework for a shortened season but that time itself continues to grow shorter by the day.