OHL Has Failed its Players By Not Returning to Play

After months of back and forth with the government of Ontario, the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) announced on Tuesday that they wouldn’t be playing their 2020-21 season. It was a colossal failure on all parts to be shared between the league and the governments, but the real victim in all of this is the players.

These young players were strung along with very little information on what was happening. Their future was put on the line and the OHL didn’t do enough to protect that.

An Absolute Shame

The Canadian Hockey League’s (CHL) two other branches — the Western Hockey League (WHL) and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) have both found ways to be on the ice in some form, and even though the WHL had to cancel their playoffs, their players had the chance to showcase their talents. The United States Hockey League (USHL) and NCAA both found ways to play and leagues worldwide have been on the ice playing competitive games. Of course, the OHL hasn’t.

Other sports leagues around the world have been playing and even two leagues within your same branch and you couldn’t find a way to get any games in? Simply put, somewhere along the line someone or a group of people didn’t try hard enough. Where that blame falls directly is up for debate. Was it the owners who didn’t want to lose the money from a bubble season? Was it the commissioner David Branch? Was it something else? We don’t know the answer to that and likely never will.

Mitch Marner Christian Dvorak David Branch
Co-captains Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak of the London Knights are presented the Memorial Cup by President of the CHL and OHL Commissioner David Branch at the 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup. (Terry Wilson/CHL Images)

No matter whose fault it is, there are players who needed this season to prove that they are good enough to be drafted in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft that now won’t have that chance unless they are lucky enough to have been selected for the under-18 tournament in Texas later this month. These players have been put at a massive disadvantage for the draft. Put yourself in the shoes of a general manager tasked with making a pick. Would you rather have the player coming out of the NCAA who you are very familiar with or the player who might be better, but hasn’t played a game in over a year?

It’s hard to blame this on the government, especially when they told the OHL what they need to do to get back on the ice early in the process. The league should have known that day if they would be able to meet those needs or not and inform the players of it. Instead, you have this situation where no one knows anything and players were hung out to dry.

No matter who is to blame for this, it’s not good enough. Players pour blood, sweat, and tears into their hockey careers, and for some, it ended in March of 2020. The OHL should be ashamed of themselves for not finding a way to support their players and get them playing games.

The USHL and NCAA Win the Day

The OHL has long been known as one of the premier developmental hockey leagues in the world, and while this one missed season likely won’t take that tag away from them, it could certainly hurt them when the next crop of rookies decide whether to commit to the league or look for alternatives like the NCAA or USHL. There have already been players opting to play in other leagues already, most notably Adam Fantilli who was widely considered to be the first-overall pick in the 2020 Priority Selection, but committed to the Chicago Steel of the USHL. (from ‘Best player in the OHL draft not going first,’ The Peterborough Examiner, April 3, 2020)

Adam Fantilli Chicago Steel
Adam Fantilli, Chicago Steel (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

After this trainwreck from the OHL, you can bet that more players will opt to play in other leagues around the world instead. The OHL has spent years working to convince the best young hockey players to come play in their league, and while they will still be the number one option for many young Canadian players, top talent from the U.S.A. and around the world might decide to head to the USHL, especially with the ever-increasing quality of the league.

The OHL let down their players to the point that the next generation of players might be willing to go elsewhere and play in leagues that actually hit the ice this season. No matter who’s fault the lost season is, players don’t care. There is now only one way to save face and show that they care about their players.

Make Something Happen

The OHL (and potentially the CHL as a whole) need to make something happen for their draft-eligible players before the NHL Entry Draft this July. There have been some rumours kicking around that suggest there have been talks about hosting a draft-eligible tournament in a bubble in Edmonton, Alberta.

According to a report from TSN Hockey Insider Darren Dreger, the NHL and the CHL have been looking at ways to get players on the ice in Edmonton, where the NHL held their playoffs last summer.

“The planning certainly is moving forward,” Dreger said on Insider Trading. “That’s all that the NHL and the CHL can do at this position. Both the CHL and the NHL are in conversation with the Alberta government. Given the success [they] had in return to play, if they can get approval from the health officials the NHL would like to hold a top prospects event in early July in Edmonton.”

For the sake of the players who have potentially had their careers impacted, something needs to be done. Again, it might not be the fault of the OHL for not getting back onto the ice, but ultimately they need to have the best interest of their players in mind, and what is best is to get them on the ice in any way possible. If that means a short tournament in Edmonton, that’s what needs to happen. There are no excuses that will help these players anymore. Just make something happen.