Well, this sucks. There’s no way around it. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench in the plans of everyone in and outside of hockey. We’ve had to isolate, social distance, wear masks, and make numerous other sacrifices for the greater good and most of us are perfectly fine doing so because we know it’s what needs to be done. In sports, we’ve seen so many leagues start late, start and stop, pause, cut the season short and so many other weird little quirks that players, fans, and teams are not accustomed to. For OHL players, the season never started and now it’s been announced that it will officially not happen with the 2020-21 season being officially canceled by the league. This comes a week after the CHL announced that the Memorial Cup would not be played this year with COVID continuing to wreak havoc across North America. The league had plans to return and they had a four-hub plan to get the league off the ground as recently as this past month but with stay-at-home orders issued and rising COVID numbers in Ontario, the league had to put that plan aside.
How does this affect the OHL?
This certainly isn’t good for the league. Teams have employees who were furloughed who were relying on the league’s return so that they could return to work. From concession staff to arena maintenance employees to the game day event teams, the heart of junior hockey often comes from the faces that you’ve seen at the rink for the past 15 years. The owners are losing money – and likely would have if the season went off as well – but that’s an issue we’ve seen across sports at every level. As unfortunate as it is, it seems to be one of the factors that owners must deal with in an unprecedented era of sports.
The teams that were building towards the league championship and a Memorial Cup bid will all be missing out on an opportunity that doesn’t come around all that often. Junior hockey is cyclical and teams plan a few years in advance to get their ‘window to win’ on an ideal timeline to build towards a specific year or two. Whether you root for the Oshawa Generals or Soo Greyhounds who were bidding to be the Memorial Cup host this year or teams like the Saginaw Spirit or Sudbury Wolves who were hoping to compete with some returning stars, this is a lost year where being competitive was likely planned a few seasons back.
Photo courtesy of the Chicago Steel
One factor I’ve seen mentioned a few times is that the OHL will be affected by this when it comes to European recruiting and recruiting OHL draft picks to play in the OHL rather than taking alternative routes. When it comes to the European players, I don’t know how much it will affect things. It was already a unique and difficult decision to leave home and come to North America regardless of whether it is to play in the OHL, QMJHL, WHL, or even the USHL. That decision may not be affected by a one-year layoff because it already seems to be the alternate option for European players whereas the European pro leagues are generally the goal.
Where I think we could see things affected is the North American alternate route. Namely, the NCAA. With the perceived disfunction of the OHL and the fact that many players have voiced their opinions that they felt strung along, the OHL could see players second guess their OHL commitments coming into the league. We’ve already seen the NCAA route become more prominent with prospects across Canada such as Cale Makar, Alex Newhook, and Owen Power. It’s not just top-15 prospects either. Jack Bar and Ayrton Martino are both Ontario-born players who could be selected in the top two rounds on the draft this year that opted against playing in the CHL. Could the perception of the league be affected as young players look at their next steps? It’s certainly a possibility and in all honesty, a route that more players should probably consider.
How does this affect the players?
Let’s start with the good news for the players if there is even anything here that qualifies as that. The OHL has agreed to honor the year and count it towards the player’s scholarship accruement after they move on from junior hockey. This is an outstanding thing for the players that will move onto university hockey and finish off their hockey careers there. The scholarships that these players receive at the end of their junior careers is far more important than many casual hockey fans realize because not everyone is an NHL player when their junior career comes to an end.
That’s where the ‘good news’ ends. The fact of the matter is that almost every OHL player, with the exception of a few players that went to Europe, has lost a season of development. This means that the 16-year-old rookies didn’t get the chance to adjust to the level of play at the major junior level. They likely played very little hockey this year aside from private skates, practices, and random games just thrown together. This could affect their play going forward and they may have slow starts to their 17-year-old season when they are trying to prepare for the NHL draft next year.
Photo credit: Terry Wilson, OHL Images/Aaron Bell, CHL Images
Speaking of the draft, the players eligible for the NHL’s annual selection process in 2021 that have had their season taken away are going to feel the effects for years to come. The top-end players such as Brandt Clarke, Mason McTavish, Brennan Othmann, and Francesco Pinelli among others were provided the opportunity to head to Europe. With some video on them and the fact that these players have been on the radar for years means that they will likely still have a good chance to be drafted around the same area that they would have had there been an OHL season.
The draft-eligible players affected the most here are split up into two groups in my opinion. Using examples from the 2020 NHL Draft to provide context, you have the ‘Jack Quinn’ group and the ‘Isaac Phillips’ group. The ‘Jack Quinn’ group are the mid-round guys that don’t get the chance to explode onto the scene and earn their way into the first-round. The ‘Isaac Phillips’ group are the players who aren’t initially thought of as draft prospects or are considered mid or late-round guys that showcase their skill and solidify their draft position with good play throughout the year. With no season, there is no chance for those mid-round guys to be seen so selecting a player like Bryce Montgomery or Pasquale Zito could be a bit less likely because they’ve been off for a year and you just haven’t seen them at all since their rookie year. We will get to see a few more players such as Ryan Winterton and Wyatt Johnston at the World U18s next month but is that enough?
The next group that this greatly affects is the players who are in their final year of eligibility for junior hockey. Their final junior hockey season was taken by this pandemic and they never get the chance to prove that they deserve that AHL deal or they never get to say goodbye to the fans that have been cheering, booing, laughing, and crying with them for four years. They never get the send-off that has become a tradition in every junior rink towards the end of their final season. They lose out on the opportunity to try and win a title or help get the young players to develop and take their next step. They lose out on a year of having a letter on their chest or being a local hero after an overtime game one last time. This is the group that hasn’t been talked about enough. This is a group that will see this lost season as an unceremonious end to the experience they’ve dreamt of for years growing up. Many of them have commitments to play USports here in Canada or plans to take their next step in life but the bitter end to their junior careers may be something they always have a hard time looking back on.
Where do they go from here?
There ae a few avenues to go down here with a rumored showcase event or expanded Top Prospects Game being in the works. Will Scouch from Scouching.ca joined me to discuss the idea for a showcase event in February, fleshing the idea out of an episode of the DraftCast. The idea was to combine elements of a bubble, the NFL scouting combine, the Top Prospects Game and more into one big event that could be sold to television stations and marketed heavily to help draw in revenue from sponsors and other things. That may be a bit of a tall task considering the timeframe and the continued struggle with the COVID-19 virus across Canada but the potential for an expanded showcase of some kind is there. Getting draft-eligible players an opportunity to showcase their talent is going to be key and I hope that is the plan for the OHL and CHL in general.
The plan is to have a full season next year with training camps starting up around Labour Day as per usual. Getting teams together nearly September seems reasonable with the vaccine becoming more widely available. The plan is to have all of the OHL teams playing next season as well. The fact of the matter is, the OHL can’t afford to lose another season to this virus and these kids can’t afford to lose another year of development. The players deserve to have the league back in action next season. Losing this one hurt enough.
The OHL season being canceled is unfortunate and I wish that all of these players had the opportunity to showcase their talent. My heart goes out to the players and their families as well as all of the team staff and arena workers who have been affected by this mess. I truly wish you all the best going forward and hope to see many of you back in the rinks next season.
You can follow me on Twitter @theTonyFerrari for more on the NHL Draft and prospects.