The league released the details of its modified playoff format this week and will see teams in the Maritime Division play off for a spot to compete in a final round-robin tournament with the top two teams that come out of the Quebec Division.
The final three teams will play in a round-robin tournament in mid-June to decide the eventual President’s Cup champion and although the dates are set, nothing can be set in stone, not during a pandemic.
“A lot of the players first and the staff have made so many sacrifices to be able to play this season,” said Martin Lavallée, assistant to the commissioner of the QMJHL. “So I think it was really important for us to have the playoffs and have all teams be part of the playoffs.”
Lavallée said there are no guarantees with the pandemic and there is still work to do in order to pull off the playoffs, but they remain confident they can pull off the playoff schedule the way they have designed it.
“We think by mid-April, at the latest we’ll be able to have our New Brunswick teams playing against the three other (Maritime) teams,” said Lavallée.
The six teams in the Maritime Division will tentatively begin playoffs in early May, which will require the re-introduction of the Atlantic bubble to pull it off.
Earlier this month, the four Atlantic premiers met and tentatively agreed to re-establish the Atlantic bubble by April 19, but that depends on the epidemiology and COVID-19 case counts across the four provinces but the QMJHL remains hopeful.
“We need to work with all of our teams and public health,” said Lavallée. “They have been good partners with us.”
There were no trophies handed out last year as 2020 marked the first time in the Canadian Hockey League‘s 102-year history that the Memorial Cup was not awarded to the top junior hockey team in the country.
The last time the President’s Cup was awarded was in 2019, the same year the Halifax Mooseheads hosted the national Memorial Cup tournament.
Mooseheads president Brian Urquhart knows pulling off a modified playoff tournament during a pandemic where cross-border provincial travel comes with strict quarantine measures won’t be easy to navigate. It will take a lot of co-ordination and the easing of some public health restrictions.
“Hosting the Memorial Cup in 2019 was a big challenge but I would say trying to play a season in COVID times has been a bigger challenge,” said Urquhart.
If all goes as planned, the eventual Maritime Division champion will move on to play in a round-robin tournament with the top two Quebec teams to determine the league champion by mid-June.
“Our mindset has kind of been do what we can do, not what we want to do; the virus is going to dictate when we can and can’t play,” said Urquhart.
For the players and coaches, the release of the playoff schedule represents a light at the end of the tunnel, a culmination of a long and hard season, which has seen games postponed and even the season suspended because of the second wave of COVID-19 cases spiking across the Maritimes in November.
Charlottetown Islanders head coach and general manager Jim Hulton says a lot of work and sacrifices have gone into season so far and the release of the playoff schedule gives the team something to look forward to and mark in their calendars.
“Now there’s an end date,” said Hulton. “That’s exciting for everybody and I know talking with some of our players today, even after the announcement, the fact that there is an end date to the regular season really helped their mindset.”
After playing 31 games in a shortened season, the Islanders find themselves in first place overall in the Quebec league and although the majority of their games have been played against Cape Breton and Halifax, they have their sights set on winning their first league title.
Hulton says even just the thought of having the opportunity to play other teams outside of the Maritimes feels like a victory.
“Even if we’re playing the same two teams, as monotonous as that gets at least we know the playoffs are going to begin May first, and that’s cause for optimism in our room,” said Hulton.
Until February, the QMJHL was the lone major junior league competing on the ice, but since then teams in the Western Hockey League in Alberta, Saskatchewan and the United States have resumed play, with teams in B.C. hitting the ice later this week.
The status of the Ontario Hockey League remains up in the air as a schedule has yet to be developed and at this point, it remains unclear if the national Memorial Cup tournament will be played this season.
The QMJHL is still looking for a site to host the final President’s Cup tournament.