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Ontario Hockey League cancels 2020-21 season

The Ontario Hockey League has officially cancelled the 2020-21 season.

The league announced the official end of its return-to-play planning effort Tuesday in a news release.

“Earlier this month the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and the Government of Ontario reached an agreement on a return-to-play plan for the League. However, the recently extended stay-at-home order along with increasing cases of COVID-19 across the province make it impossible for the OHL to have a season,” the release said.

The league said it had reached an agreement with the provincial government on a return-to-play plan a few weeks ago that envisioned a shortened season to be played in hub cities after following rigid COVID-19 “containment protocols.” The league was just a day away from announcing the plan when “COVID-19 conditions worsened dramatically as new variants of concern took hold and posed a significant threat to overwhelm the healthcare system.”

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The goal, the league said, was to showcase the 450 OHL players to scouts preparing for the 2021 NHL Entry Draft as well as university hockey programs and Hockey Canada talent evaluators.

“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,” said OHL Commissioner David Branch.

The OHL plans to hold its priority selection draft later this spring, and will now work toward the 2021-22 regular season slated to begin this fall.

Owen Sound Attack general manager Dale DeGray said the league was close to announcing a return to play right before Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced the provincewide “emergency brake” on April 1.

The provincial shutdown, set to expire May 6, was later extended two additional weeks.

“I think a lot of people probably thought we may have pulled the plug on this earlier, but I’ll give the league some credit, they kept trying to push and work toward a start date,” DeGray said. “I just think, you know what, how can you shut down a province and then say, oh, by the way, these young athletes are going to participate in their season.”

Owen Sound Attack defenceman Andrew Perrott was still digesting the news when reached by phone Tuesday afternoon.

“I’m just sad honestly. A little sad, angry. Obviously not being able to play the sport I love and the sport I sacrificed so much of my life to be a part of, countless hours in the weight room off the ice. Honestly, I know it’s cliche, but blood, sweat and tears. You bleed, sweat and cry for this game and for it to be taken away from you all of the sudden – it hurts,” Perrott said.

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Perrott wrote an open letter to government and league officials in February and circulated a petition among fellow players in an effort to weigh in on the process and help detail the effect a year-long layoff was having on the athletes.

“I understand health and safety are the priority, but on the other hand … every other league in North America and the world have found a way to play,” Perrott said.

The OHL’s official announcement comes just a week after the Canadian Hockey League shelved the Memorial Cup for a second-straight season and hours following the Western Hockey League cancelling its playoffs.

The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League started their season in October, but outbreaks and shutdowns caused weeks-long interruptions and recently teams in Cape Breton and Halifax pulled out of the playoffs when another implementation of the Atlantic bubble made travel impossible.

The Cape Breton Screaming Eagles played 36 regular-season games. Of those, 32 were against fellow east-coast teams Halifax and Charlottetown because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“Everyone is getting tired of playing the same two teams — I’ve heard from fans and I’ve heard from sponsors and I’ve heard from players — everyone is getting tired of the same two teams and I fully understand,” Eagles president Gerard Shaw was quoted as saying in the Cape Breton Post.

DeGray said the cancellation of the Memorial Cup – which was supposed to be in either Oshawa or Sault Ste. Marie this year – may have snuffed the competitive flame of those involved who were able to play this season.

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“When there was an announcement that the Memorial Cup wasn’t going to be played out, I think some kids started to think, well what are we doing?” DeGray said.

Players and fans alike voiced frustration Tuesday citing a lack of communication from the OHL throughout the process as the main annoyance and a possible lasting deterrent for players who may now choose to eschew major junior hockey for the NCAA.

DeGray said he’s not worried about that, and the league needed to stay hushed or else it risked fuelling the rumour mill.

“I think the league wanted to keep things as quiet as possible, and they certainly did that. Was it frustrating for all involved outside of the league office? Probably, players included,” he said.

Perrott though, who had the opportunity to play NCAA hockey at Miami University (Ohio) but chose to play major junior in Canada, said if he was 15 again today that choice may be a little harder.

“It definitely would have been a longer sit down to really decide what I would have done if this would have happened at that point in time. But, I’m in the situation I am in now so I just have to make the most of it and grind through it,” Perrott said.

“They pride themselves on being the number one developmental league in the world, but they haven’t developed anyone in 13 months now,” Perrott said.

New COVID-19 variants and a fear of the unknown may have played a large part in the league’s final decision, DeGray said.

“I think one thing the league looked at is the repercussions of someone being sick. Nobody knows what that’s going to be like in a year, two years, or five years from now,” he said. “If we move the clock five years ahead maybe we can look back and say this was the best thing, but right now it does sting.”

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For the players who will miss out on a season of development and the unique experience of playing major junior hockey in Canada, DeGray said he understands it can be hard to make sense of the league’s decision.

“I’m sure everyone will look at this a different way. The hard part is these kids are so emotionally invested in their craft at this point that this is incredibly disappointing,” DeGray said. “For them to hear me tell them this all has to do with their safety probably falls on deaf ears . . . and I get that, I’m an ex-player.”

The Attack would have entered the 2020-21 season with five overage players on the roster. Barret Kirwin (Dalhousie) and Kaleb Pearson (UPEI) will play with Canadian university hockey teams next season.

DeGray said he expects Adam McMaster could play USPORTS if he wanted. Sergey Popov and Carter Robertson might try to play professionally. Robertson played in Slovakia this past season.

“I heard he played really well, so maybe that opens some things up for Carter,” DeGray said.

The OHL has discussed allowing over-age players who missed their last year of eligibility to return in 2021-22, but no final decision has been made. DeGray and Perrott both said they would support such a move. Perrott is eligible to return regardless.

DeGray said he hopes fans in Owen Sound will remain patient as the manager’s attention turns to the 2021-22 season, the upcoming draft, and possibly, a return of the team’s annual summer softball tournament.

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