Kevin Abrams has been involved at all levels of hockey for most of his life. That includes more than 30 years as a scout, coach, general manager, administrator and junior hockey team owner, but none of that experience could have prepared him for the challenges he is now facing as commissioner of the Central Canada Hockey League.
The 12-team league that he oversees had been hoping to start its regular season on October 1, but a month later, the league is still on hold and with rising cases of the COVID-19 virus in the Ottawa region, it’s unclear when and if a new season will get underway any time soon.
Abrams is optimistic. He’s proud of the work that has been done by the league and the various governing bodies that regulate hockey at all levels in Eastern Ontario, but he also realizes there are so many things he can’t control during this pandemic.
Training camps for CCHL teams opened in August. For weeks the teams held practices that focused on skill development. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, developmental scrimmages were permitted, allowing teams to match up with geographical foes to play what amounted to non-body contact exhibition games.
It hasn’t been easy. Players walk into rinks with their equipment on no more than 20 minutes before taking the ice and they have to get out of the arena as soon as they finish playing. Showers aren’t permitted. Coaches have limited opportunities to deliver pep talks and the buildings are void of fans, but at least the players are on the ice and facing competition.
“That’s the key right now, to keep everyone’s focus and mental well-being in a positive space,” says Abrams.
Every Monday morning, Abrams holds a conference call with team representatives. He estimates the league has worked through more than a hundred return to play scenarios since the league suspended play on March 12, shutting down its post-season before it really got started. It was the first time in the almost 60 year history of the CCHL that no league champion was crowned.
The commissioner has been active on social media, promoting the work the league has done to prepare a robust mitigation plan that protects the safety of its players and team officials, but so far the lobbying hasn’t been enough for the league to start its 2020-21 season.
Ontario’s Sport Minister, Lisa MacLeod, has already said that contact and body-checking would make it difficult for the provincial government to approve play in the Ontario Hockey League. The OHL intends to open its season in December, but its sister league in Quebec has already started its season, albeit with a lot of issues.
Within a couple of weeks, several games in the Quebec Major Junior League were cancelled after there were outbreaks of players contracting the coronavirus. Recently, the league shutdown its entire Quebec division, allowing only its Maritime division to continue play.
Abrams knows that if the green light is given to his league, it will be very different than previous hockey seasons. Playing an entire season with no body contact and with no spectators in buildings is a very real possibility, but if that’s what is necessary, Abrams says the league governors are committed to moving forward.
“If this is what it looks like, we can find a way to make it work. It’s not what we are used to, but we are committed to making the hockey programs in the area work,” says Abrams.
Abrams knows it is inevitable that the CCHL will have COVID cases too. “No system is perfect. We can’t control everyone’s movement 24 hours a day. We are encouraging good behaviour and we are working closely with the players to make them understand the consequences of their subtle actions,” says Abrams.
In the meantime, the commissioner will continue to spend a lot of time in meetings, planning for a day when the CCHL is told its game on. For now, he’s taking it one day at a time during the longest off season of his hockey life.