When you’re in the middle of a pandemic, tough decisions need to be made. They’re never simple, nor does anyone want to make them, but they’re often best for the health and safety of those involved. This was the case on Tuesday morning as the OHL formally announced the cancellation of the 2020-21 season. Now, with the rest of the league, the Windsor Spitfires firmly look towards 2021-22 and hope to figure out their future.
In 2019, Spitfires’ owners Cypher Systems Group (brothers John and Stephen Savage along with Brian Schwab) took over the club after a potential sale went flat. They bought the majority stake from then-owners Warren Rychel and Bob Boughner. While it has been a generally quiet transition, they now join general manager Bill Bowler in navigating the club through an unprecedented pandemic. It’s a learning curve for everyone, though there’s some light on the horizon.
How did this all unfold? Let’s take a look.
OHL Finally Decides
Since August, the OHL has released multiple “Return to Play” plans in hopes of getting their players on the ice safely for 2020-21. However, for various reasons, the start dates kept getting pushed back and frustration grew.
It all came to a conclusion on Tuesday as the league formally canceled the 2020-21 season. Commissioner David Branch said the league and Province of Ontario had reached an agreement, but rising numbers and the recent “Stay at Home Order” put a quick halt on the season.
“We owe it to our players and their families to be definitive,” he said in a statement.
“We were committed to return and play this season, but our hopes and desires have been dashed by the cruel realities of COVID-19 … We all agree that providing certainty for our players and families, even if it is not the answer they would want to hear, is the right thing for everyone’s health and safety and for the mental health challenges faced by many of our young players.”
In the afternoon, Branch also addressed a few areas of discussion:
- The “Return to Play” plan was ready to be announced, including hotel bubbles (cities undetermined) and Government support for testing, but things changed “dramatically” the evening before the unveiling.
- The Province of Ontario would not support the three US-based teams “in any fashion,” which meant the league had to come up with other ideas, including a potential three-team division.
- Scholarships will be honored for the season.
This afternoon, following the decision, Spitfires’ President and Governor John Savage released a statement:
It’s a disappointing conclusion to an ever-changing situation. However, the 2021 Memorial Cup was canceled last week and, with Ontario COVID-19 cases skyrocketing over the last month, keeping everyone safe is paramount.
The Next Steps
With today’s cancellation, what’s the next step?
The first order of business is dealing with the 2021 OHL Priority Selection, which had been scheduled for early May. While an official date is up in the air, Branch said he expects an announcement on that sometime later in April. Following that are the Under-18 Draft, which takes place soon after, and the 2021 CHL Import Draft, which is sometime this summer.
There is also the possibility of a showcase for graduating players and NHL prospects so scouts can see how they’ve developed. While some players were able to find teams in the pros or Europe, many had a tough time getting any game action at all.
Following the summer, the league is hoping to open 2021-22 Training Camps around Labor Day weekend. All 20 teams would return to a 68-game schedule with “normal capacity” at some point during the season. Having fans in the stands seems unthinkable now but, under safe restrictions, would be welcomed.
Finally, the league may look at allowing graduating players (born in 2000) to return for one final season. They would have normally graduated after 2020-21 but exceptions are possible. There are certainly pros and cons to this idea and it’ll be worth watching over the summer.
Spitfires Focus on 2021-22
While Savage and the Cypher Systems Group look to the business side of the club’s future, Bowler and his coaching staff look at the roster for next season and beyond.
When the 2019-20 season ended in March 2020, the club was looking to break their ugly streak of eight straight seasons with a first-round playoff exit. With the team making the CHL Top 10 for several weeks in late 2019, the talent was certainly there.
The roster featured veterans like Columbus Blue Jackets’ prospect forward Tyler Angle, Vegas Golden Knights’ prospect defenceman Connor Corcoran, and 6-foot-9, 235-pound forward Curtis Douglas. With this trio set to graduate after 2020-21, the Spitfires were built for contending. In the small chance, some graduates are allowed to return, it presents an intriguing option for Bowler. However, for now, let’s assume it won’t happen.
Instead, the team will have a respectable veterans group that includes Colorado Avalanche prospect Jean-Luc Foudy, New York Rangers’ prospect Will Cuylle, sparkplug forward Daniel D’Amico, goaltender Xavier Medina, and 2021 NHL Draft prospect forward Wyatt Johnston.
The group isn’t quite on the same production level as the 2020-21 graduates, but the opportunity to be leaders on a rebuilding roster has its benefits. When you add in picks from 2019, 2020, and 2021 OHL drafts, all of whom will be eager to show they belong, you start to see some hope for the future. Fans might not like the word “rebuild” but, as we’ve seen, it’s better than no hockey at all. Let’s not take this for granted.
For now, the Spitfires focus on the three upcoming drafts and then prepare to head to the rink sometime in September. Hopefully, the Ontario landscape looks vastly different by then, for everyone’s sake.