For the third time since the COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, the entire province of Ontario has been placed under lockdown. Questions were already brewing about if it was too late for the OHL to return to the ice for their 2020-21 season, and now they are being asked with a slightly larger level of concern.
Things were looking promising during the month of March, but the tables have quickly turned. The question everyone is asking themselves now is if there is even hope for an OHL season at this point.
What We Know So Far
The OHL has released multiple return-to-play plans that have failed so far, and recently, they have been very quiet about releasing any more. The silence has been somewhat disturbing for players and fans alike as they have been forces to sit on their hands with very little information. The cause of the silence could be as simple as the league not wanting to put anything out into the public domain without it being set in stone, or it could mean that there is no plan right now. The only people who would know the answer to that is the league.
We have also seen reports that Lisa MacLeod, the Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, and the government of Ontario are looking to have the OHL play in various bubbles around the province, something that worked nearly flawlessly for the NHL in the summer. One crucial piece of information that we don’t yet know is what impact the new lockdown measures (if any) have had on discussions between the league and the government.
It was recently announced that the OHL would receive $2.35 million in scholarship funds, but there could be more coming in addition, should the league be able to get back on the ice.
“I’m optimistic we can provide them with some level of financial aid,” said MacLeod. “What that is, I have no idea at this point because we haven’t had the return-to-play protocol signed off and we’re not looking at the moment on where they might be playing.”
This is good news for the league and the players when it comes to getting back onto the ice. Financially, the league likely wouldn’t be able to afford what it needed to do to get back on the ice by itself, so this can be a fallback to help out where they need it.
With all of the things that are positive, these are things we have known for weeks, if not months. MacLeod was confident that the OHL would have an announcement about a return to play at the end of March, and now that has come and gone with nothing. But there is still a way to make things happen, and it is likely the same way the government wanted it done anyway.
Bubbles Can Still Work
If the OHL still does want to get back on the ice, they should still be able to pull it off should they be willing to go into bubbles like had previously been discussed. While cases continue to soar in Ontario, the bubble can be done safely while posing minimal risk to players and personnel inside. In fact, it could be one of the safest places to be in the province if done correctly.
The bubble format has worked for the NHL, the NBA, the MLS, and the WHL and QMJHL recently. It has provided a safe environment for players even when COVID-19 was running rampant around the world. Leagues have adapted and overcome, but the OHL still hasn’t. The path forward isn’t entirely clear, but the blueprint is there.
If a plan were to be put into place, it would be crucial that the plan is properly constructed. Like we have seen in other sports, there will be positive tests when players arrive and there will be talking points on radio stations and T.V. talk shows that there won’t be a season, but it should be expected. The plan put into place needs to think about these kinds of things.
How Far Are They Willing To Go?
For anything to happen, the OHL is going to need to make some sacrifices. Just how far is the league willing to go to get their players back on the ice? That much is unknown right now, but they continue to suggest that they want to be back. How much is the league willing to do?
We are now into April, the time where normally the OHL would be in the second round of the playoffs. To get the players back on the ice, a reasonable timeline before you would see games start is three to four weeks. That would give players enough time to isolate for two weeks and have a week of training camp at least before real games started. That would push the start of the season in May if things were given the green light today.
If the season were to mimic the WHL’s 24 game season, you would likely be looking at about two months to complete. This kind of season could put the 2021-22 season at risk of either being delayed or shortened. Is this something the OHL is willing to do? This question is going to become even more important should the government of Ontario dictate that the league can’t return to play while there is a province-wide lockdown.
If the OHL is willing to make sacrifices (including financial loss and losing part of the 2021-22 season), then there is a path that can be taken to return to the ice and play some kind of season. If, however, they are uninterested in such sacrifices, there is no hope, and they should come out and say that there won’t be a season. The time is ticking on a season, and the waters are only getting murkier.