With the recent announcement by Premier Doug Ford and the Ontario government, which will instill a lockdown across all of Ontario, the OHL has announced it will follow precedents set by the other Minor Hockey Leagues of Canada.
The Provincial Government announced on Monday, December 21st that all non-essential businesses in Ontario would be closed until at least January 9th, with businesses in Southern Ontario restricted until January 23rd, at the earliest.
The original target for the beginning of the OHL season was December 1st, with training camps scheduled to open on November 15th. Concerns over the pandemic pushed that target date to February 4th, with camps scheduled to open in mid-January.
The recent announcement by the provincial government has scrapped those plans as well, leaving the entire season in limbo. This coming on the heels of a complete cancellation of last season and the Memorial Cup as of March 22nd, 2020.
“The safety of all of our stakeholders and communities is our priority and we are committed to starting the 2020-21 season when it is safe to do so. We know that this is difficult news for many of our players, fans, billets, parents, staff and teams,” as stated in the OHL press release today.
This leaves us with the rather obvious, and unfortunately difficult question: will there be Minor League Hockey played in Ontario this season?
Of course, there are many factors at play that can influence this question, but the two most important are likely the survivability of Minor League Hockey if a season is not played, and the safety of players involved if it is played.
Does the OHL need to play this season to survive? That is the question being asked, and from what information is available, it most likely does not.
While it stands to lose money without a season of ticket sales and merchandise, it is not responsible for paying players or property taxes to the extent the other endangered Canadian sports league, the CFL, is.
The OHL is one of the three minor hockey leagues in Canada that form the collective CHL. While not directly affiliated with any NHL clubs, these teams are treated as proving grounds for potential draft picks – 20 of the 31 first-round picks in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft played minor hockey with a CHL club.
Without the CHL helping scouts and coaches evaluate young talent, the NHL draft would become a lot messier – in the same way the MLB would become a lot more messy without it’s Minor League Teams.
As per a file used in court against the CHL in 2016, the most valuable franchise among the 42 in Canadian Minor League Hockey is the Calgary Hitmen, worth just under $70 million at the time. The most valuable OHL franchise, the Ottawa 67’s, was worth around $55 million at the time.
It’s difficult to juxtapose a minor league that works on it’s own and is unaffiliated with a major league, as opposed to other minor leagues like the NBA G-League or the MiLB. However, it is tough to see a world where any of these leagues fold if they’re unable to play this season at all.
The reason the G-League or MiLB should be safe is affiliation with their Major Leagues – the NBA and MLB can afford to keep these leagues afloat through games not being played. The OHL should survive just based on a surplus of funds and the fact that they are not responsible for paying their athletes.
Conversely, the question of whether safe play can be attained still stands for this season. The QMJHL attempted to return to play on October 2nd, 2020, and we’ll just say it… didn’t go well.
Within the first week of play, there were 18 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the organization from the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada and 8 in the organization from the Sherbrooke Phoenix. This is to say nothing of the other teams that received minor outbreaks in the following days and weeks.
It culminated in the temporary cancellation of the QMJHL, which is now planning to resume activities in late January in small bubble cities.
“The league’s priority is to enable our players to play hockey while pursuing their education within the safest possible environments. These types of events became the most effective way to achieve these objectives,” said QMJHL commissioner Gilles Courteau.
It is possible the OHL follows suit down the road, especially if it returns with no fans in the stands and even if a safe bubble can be made in one city or many in Ontario. However, the most important detail to work out is getting the Coronavirus numbers down across the board in the province.