It will have been 565 days since the Pembroke Lumber Kings played a meaningful hockey game when the team returns to the ice to start its 2021-22 Central Canada Hockey League regular season Friday night in Kemptville. Two nights later they will play their home opener against the Smiths Falls Bears at the venerable Pembroke Memorial Centre, a junior hockey mecca that is celebrating its 70th anniversary.
There is an air of optimism among the league’s 12 teams, a feeling that the Art Bogart Cup that has been on the shelf for the past two seasons is up for grabs. Part of that sentiment is because two of the top coaches in the league have moved on. Jason Clarke who turned the Carleton Place Canadians into a powerhouse franchise sold the club in the off-season and has taken an assistant coaching job with Shawinigan of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Martin Dagenais who led the Ottawa Junior Senators to league championships in the spring of 2018 and 2019 has signed on as an Assistant Coach with the Ottawa 67’s of the Ontario Hockey League.
As those two franchises transition to new leadership behind the bench, the rest of the teams hope to take a step forward and compete for a championship. In Pembroke, the Lumber Kings newly named captain, Brady Egan, says “The guys are very excited to get things going,” adding, “We want to start things off strong to set the tone for the entire year and with the great group that we have, we believe we can do that.”
The start of a new season is always a time to believe in the potential of a team. Over the next few weeks and months players will come in and out of line-ups as injuries occur, trades are made and clubs continue searching for missing pieces to improve their chances of winning more games.
For league commissioner Kevin Abrams it has been a long and tiring 18 months. Countless meetings, an abundance of planning and negotiating, and some soul searching to try to figure out a way to move forward from the COVID-19 pandemic has been exhausting. Abrams says it’s the hardest he’s worked in his 15 years as the league chairman.
“Missing almost two seasons was difficult from a business perspective, but the owners were very resilient. You can lament, but it pales in comparison with some other industries. We hope to provide something that helps the communities feel that things are normal again,” says Abrams as he celebrates the return of junior hockey.
“This season the on-ice portion of the game is going to be what we are used to. Once the puck drops, I don’t think the fans will see any difference,” says Abrams.
In most arenas, there will be a 50 percent capacity limit and fans will need to wear masks and show proof of vaccination against the COVID-19 virus as mandated by the province of Ontario. Coaches and team personnel who are on the bench with the players will also have to wear masks as part of the league safety protocols. Earlier in the summer, the league imposed a mandatory vaccination policy for players and team officials.
The Kings played three exhibition games, all against their new geographical rival, the Renfrew Wolves, winning two of three of those contests. Their season opening game against the Kemptville 73’s will be the first match-up against a club other than Renfrew since March 8, 2020 when they defeated the Rockland Nationals 4-3 in the final regular season game of the 2019-2020 season. Four days later play was suspended in the league just as the post-season was about to get started.
Since that last game, the league has done its best to support its teams and players. The most it could offer last year was developmental scrimmages or modified exhibition games with teams required to stay within geographical jurisdictions. Public health restrictions during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic required these scrimmages to limit body contact and controlled how long players could be in dressing rooms before and after games. It was an opportunity to play, but it’s wasn’t the same brand of hockey that junior players are accustomed to.
Abrams says it was difficult for everyone. “It is so unprecedented. It is generational in terms of its impact on the sport. I’m proud of the fact that we found ways to work together and get through things. It was not easy. Hopefully this season is one to remember for some good reasons,” says Abrams.
We are still in the midst of a pandemic. Everyone in the Central Canada Hockey League knows things can change in a hurry, but on the eve of a new season, the focus is on playing games. Junior Hockey is back.