It has been more than four months since the Central Canada Hockey League shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but now the league is planning for an October 1st re-start as its kicks off its 59th regular season. For that to happen, the league is banking on the Ontario government and public health officials advancing past phase three of the provincial re-opening plan.
“We can’t play regular hockey in stage three,” says Commissioner Kevin Abrams who has been working with colleagues throughout Ontario and across the country to put in place health and safety protocols that will satisfy government and public health officials. There’s a lot to consider, everything from cleaning dressing rooms to bus travel and how many spectators can attend games, if any at all.
“We eventually would like to say that every facility should be able to operate at full capacity, but we recognize that probably until Christmas that won’t be possible, but there is certainly a number that would make it feasible, and another number that would make it challenging,” says Abrams.
The numbers matter for Pembroke Lumber Kings owner Alex Armstrong. Armstrong bought the hockey club last summer, but could never have imagined his first experience as a team owner would be so turbulent.
“It’s been tough,” says Armstrong, who was expecting his team to draw good crowds in last spring’s playoffs, but on the night the Kings were to open their first round series with the Rockland Nationals, the league abruptly shutdown. The pandemic was starting to take hold on Canada, forcing the CCHL to cancel its post-season, making it the first time the league had not awarded its league championship trophy in its history.
The postponement of the season meant the anticipated revenue generated by increased playoff ticket sales was lost. In a gate-driven market like Pembroke losing the post-season stung and the financial losses caused by the pandemic are still being felt by the hockey club. “It hurt. We’re not going to say we’re ok, we’re not ok. It’s no different than any other business, we lost our bread and butter,” says Armstrong.
As a new season approaches, Armstrong is worried about the loss of team sponsors because like his hockey club, the pandemic has taken a toll on many businesses. There’s also the question of how many fans can attend games, but Armstrong is hopeful things will work out. He feels blessed to have one of the largest arenas in the league, the almost 70-year old Pembroke Memorial Centre, which can hold about 2,400 fans.
If a cap is put in place limiting how many spectators can watch a game based on a percentage of the building’s capacity, Armstrong hopes it will be in the range of 30 percent to kick off the season. That would allow for about 700 fans to attend Lumber Kings games, satisfying the team’s loyal season ticket base and allowing for some walk up attendees as well.
“There’s lot of room in there for social distancing. I think the reality is we will be able to get a decent crowd in there if permitted,” but Armstrong knows it will be different, expecting wearing a mask may be mandatory for fans. “If we all do our part, we will be fine,” says Armstong.
For Abrams, it all comes down to how the Ministry of Health views the proposal put in by his league and Hockey Eastern Ontario, the jurisdictional governing body that represents all levels of hockey in the region. That proposal offered detailed protocols on how the CCHL would manage the health and safety of its players, coaches, team officials and spectators, but it also laid out what would be needed to allow junior hockey to return.
The league intends to release its regular season schedule in mid-August and start training camps in early September. The regular season is normally 62 games and the league is hoping it will be able to play a full schedule, but the actions of other junior leagues across the country could impact its plans.
In the Alberta Junior League, the plan is to begin a regular season on September 18 but in British Columbia, the BCHL won’t begin its season until December 1st. The British Columbia decision in particular has brought into question whether there will be a Centennial Cup championship in the spring of 2021, because the B.C. league will have limited time to play a full season and get its playoffs completed in alignment with the other leagues. The national championship tournament is to be hosted by the Penticton Vees of the B.C. league in mid-May of 2021.
The CCHL is building its schedule under the assumption that the regional championships and Centennial Cup tournament will go ahead as planned. The Hawkesbury Hawks are scheduled to host the Fred Page Cup, the Eastern Canadian title, that brings together the champions from the CCHL, Quebec and Maritime Junior A leagues.
“Normally I’m pretty structured and I like things to be certain. One thing I have learned in the past few months is that that doesn’t work right now. Our objective is October 1st. We believe that will be when we start, but for me to say there is an absolute certainly would be foolish given the circumstances. Things can change dramatically,” says Abrams.
At a time when all junior hockey leagues in the country are trying to plan their 2020-21 seasons, there remains a lot of unanswered questions including will American players be able to play this season with the Canada-U.S. border remaining closed for the foreseeable future. The Kings have only one American player on their roster, Sam Holy, but other clubs have more.
For Abrams, he’s taking it one day at a time and hoping that the October 1st date his league has chosen to re-start will stick. It’s a calculated move, based on a lot of discussions and monitoring of how Ontario has managed the pandemic and its economic recovery. If all goes well, junior hockey will return just as the National Hockey League is wrapping up its Stanley Cup championship series in early October.