To anyone caught up in the process of waiting, it came on like the inevitability of winter.
There were days that seemed to offer up warm rays of hope for players, staff and fans of the Ontario Hockey League that a return-to-play plan would live up to its name.
A day in late fall of 2020 offered Feb. 4 for a potential start — an abbreviated season for sure, but a chance for something akin to what the Western Hockey League eventually created; a chance for players to showcase themselves to scouts and also just to get back to doing what they love to do.
The minister of heritage, sport, tourism and culture, Lisa MacLeod, offered optimism in March that a framework was being put in place and that there could be an announcement outlining the OHL’s return before the end of that month.
But like that coming winter that we all start to sense as the calendar creeps past September, the wind whipped up and blew those opportunities aside and with climbing COVID-19 case counts throughout the province of Ontario, any light of hope that existed began to look pretty dim.
It went out completely on Tuesday morning. The 2020-21 OHL Return to Play was officially ended in a statement from the league.
“It really sinks in right now. We had a team call with everybody and you could see some sad faces,” admitted London Knights general manager Mark Hunter. “I feel bad for the players. They all trained really hard and they were putting the time in to be ready and focused and this virus has stripped everybody of that (chance).”
This freeze has permeated far beyond even day-to-day operations on the ice.
“A lot of businesses have been in a tough situation. The restaurant business, the hotel business and we’re in that kind of position right now. Budweiser Gardens as well,” said Hunter.
Anyone who has gone to a Knights game in downtown London knows all too well that it is more than a trip through the turnstile and a path to and from your seat. It usually involves a stop at one of the restaurants that line King Street and Talbot Street before or after the game. For parents of players, it might involve an overnight stay a few times a year to take in a two- or three-game weekend. Junior hockey towns reap financial benefits throughout the hockey season.
According to Ontario Hockey League figures, “The League has a direct financial impact of over $126 million and an indirect impact of over $265 million on the Ontario economy. OHL member teams raised upwards of $4 million in support of charities across the province during the 2019-20 season.”
None of that could be realized in 2020-21.
The OHL is part of the Canadian Hockey League, which backs up its claim as the best developmental league in the world with the number of players from its ranks who go on to play professional hockey.
Some players looking to fulfill the dream of playing in the National Hockey League were able to go and play briefly in Europe. Logan Mailloux and Nathan Dunkley of the Knights went to Sweden. Others found places in the American Hockey League. Luke Evangelista (Chicago Wolves), Brett Brochu (Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins), Tonio Stranges (Texas Stars) and now Billy Moskal (Cleveland Monsters) all belonged to that group.
Still, as Hunter points out, there were some who sadly fell through the cracks.
“It’s players being seen that you worry about. We have some (2003-born players) here and it was their time to go and show their stuff.”
Hunter has seen how much can happen for a player in his NHL draft year and used Knights forward Evangelista as a prime example.
“(Luke) didn’t get a lot of points as a 16-year-old but caught fire last year and ended up being almost a first-round pick.”
On Tuesday, Hunter found himself looking back at a season that he feels almost materialized.
“I really believe that before this last lockdown it was really getting close to something where we could get the boys back playing and then the pandemic and the virus hit again hard and it put everything back to a stop. It was something out of everybody’s hands.”
Add it to the long list of items that have fallen into that category in the time that we have been dealing with COVID-19. But what is anyone left to do?
“We might as well put one foot ahead and get thinking about next year,” offered Hunter. We’ll get thinking about our team and our season ticket-holders and our fans and what will be best for players’ development, giving them an idea on what to do to work out and, of course, that will hopefully allow our fans to see them in the best position to succeed next year.”
The COVID-19 pandemic seems to drop a deep dumping of snow and ice on everyone day after day. The hope is that it eventually goes the way of the wintry weather that we never really become accustomed to.
September always brings the beginning of autumn; the equinox that marks the end of astronomical summer.
In 2021, fans, players and staff members of Ontario Hockey League teams are hoping it can bring an end to the astronomical wait for the next OHL action.