It has been more than nine months since a meaningful game was played in the Central Canada Hockey League and still the league has no timeline on when it might be able to resume play. It’s been frustrating and worrisome for team owners, players and fans, but the league understands that starting its 2020-21 season is layered with complexity that goes well beyond its control.
While league commissioner, Kevin Abrams is trying to remain positive he is now willing to admit there is a possibility there won’t be a season. “While we are hopeful, it can’t be ruled out. Certainly the hopes for a traditional season are fading, but some form of hockey is still the objective,” says Abrams who has spent months trying to find a path forward for his league.
Originally, the CCHL had hoped to start its season on October 1, but that plan was shelved when COVID-19 cases in Ontario started rising in the fall. Instead of playing regular season games, the league had to settle for what it calls developmental scrimmages, non body-contact games that keep teams within a bubble, only allowed to play a single opponent.
For the Pembroke Lumber Kings, that opponent has been the Renfrew Wolves. The two teams have faced each other a dozen times and while the players are happy to be on the ice and competing against another club, it’s not the same as taking on multiple foes during a regular season.
“It’s been frustrating for all of us facing Renfrew 12 times, but we are all happy that the league has allowed us to play these developmental scrimmages and get back to the game that we love,” says Lumber Kings captain Cameron Hough. “We are all hoping the regular season starts up after Christmas,” adds Hough, who as a 20 year old is facing the reality that this is his last season of being eligible to play junior hockey.
If a new season does get started in the New Year, it will be a much shorter schedule than the normal 62 games the league has been playing in recent years. How many games each club plays remains unknown, but most likely the teams will only play squads within their own division, reducing travel and also limiting the risk of exposure to the virus by keeping clubs within smaller bubbles.
As part of its safety plan, the league is proposing there be more separation between games. “We’ve proposed 4, 7, 10 and 14 day breaks before clubs face a new opponent,” says Abrams, but so far the CCHL proposals have not been approved by the various health units and the province, who ultimately will decide whether the league can start up again.
Meanwhile, there is no ice at the Pembroke Memorial Centre. The fabled rink that has been home to Lumber Kings hockey for almost 70 years has been idled by a pandemic that has disrupted all facets of life including sports, but team owner Alex Armstrong remains hopeful.
“We are confident there will be a season. With the vaccine here it is another step in the right direction,” says Armstrong who believes the league has done an outstanding job of keeping players safe.
“We have done everything in our power to be safe and stay healthy,” says Armstrong, highlighting that the 12 league teams have not had any positive COVID cases since clubs opened training camps in August. That’s one of the reasons why Armstrong is so optimistic there will be a regular season.
The Lumber Kings players recently returned home for the holiday season, following almost five months of daily practices and skills development scrimmages. They hope that when they return to Pembroke they will be gearing up for a shortened regular season, one that will include several protocols that the league has developed as part of its pandemic safety mitigation plan.
No one wants to pull the plug. Everyone involved with the league knows that not having a season would be devastating.
“The impact is huge,” says Abrams. “Players and parents are the most impacted on a number of levels from an inability to play and develop, to the cost to participate increasing due to a lack of team revenues from spectators, sponsors and advertising,” adds Abrams.
For now, Abrams simply says, “keep the faith,” but the Commissioner also knows that the clock is ticking. The eleventh hour is fast approaching on whether there will be a CCHL season in 2021.