It was the most energy the Lumber Kings had experienced in their home rink all season long. On Sunday, March 9, 2020 the Kings completed their 2019-20 regular season with an impressive 4-3 win over the Rockland Nationals. It was a playoff preview. Four days later the two teams were to begin a best of seven Central Canada Hockey League quarter-final series, but just hours before game one in the series opener, everything stopped. A year later, the league remains on pause.
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted everything in life including sports. Within days of the league putting its playoffs on hold, league commissioner, Kevin Abrams, announced for the first time in the more than 50 year history of the CCHL there would be no league champion. As cases of COVID infections soared across the country, provincial governments and health units were ordering people to stay at home.
It was disappointing, particularly for graduating players, but everyone understood we were experiencing a global pandemic and there were more important issues to address than trying to continue a junior hockey season. Over the next several months the league made several proposals to governing bodies in an effort to begin a 2020-21 season, but a year later it is clear there will again be no Art Bogart Cup champion in the spring of 2021. To date, the league has only been able to play non-body contact developmental scrimmages, and there have been tight restrictions on what teams can play each other because of the varying health unit restrictions within jurisdictions where the league has teams.
Recently the Pembroke Lumber Kings began a four game development scrimmage series with the Carleton Place Canadians. None of the games are being played in Pembroke meaning for the first time in the history of both the Junior and Senior Lumber Kings, there will be no Kings games in Hockey Town Canada this year. This strange year also marks the first time in the almost 70 year history of the Pembroke Memorial Centre, that the artificial ice was not put into the venerable old barn that is the most recognized junior hockey arena in the league.
So back to that last game. It was fan appreciation night and a good crowd had gathered to send the Kings into the playoffs. The Kings had connected on two of three powerplay opportunities and had broken a 3-3 tie in the third period when Anthony Urbisci scored his fifth goal of the season mid-way through the period to give the Kings the win. Rockland had outshot Pembroke 35-31 but the win was clearly the boost of confidence Pembroke needed as it prepared to go up against the number two seed in the first round of the post-season.
The first warnings that the league playoffs might be in jeopardy came a couple of days later when the National Basketball Association put its regular season on hold after a player tested positive for the coronavirus. A day later the National Hockey League halted its season. The dominoes were starting to fall.
On Thursday, March 12, as the Lumber Kings bus rolled into the parking lot at Rockland’s arena, the rumors were swirling. They were confirmed as the team departed the bus. The CCHL playoffs were on hold. Within a few days, the league cancelled its post-season, sending players back home as provincial stay at home orders were implemented.
Over the next several months, there were starts and stops. The league announced in the summer it hoped to start is 2020-21 season on October 1st. Training camps opened in late August, but as the days passed it was becoming obvious there was no clear pathway to return to play. Eventually, developmental scrimmages were permitted, but when the province ordered another lock down on Boxing Day, it sealed any chance a regular season could be salvaged.
It’s been frustrating for everyone involved and it’s been a rollercoaster ride for the players, coaches, parents, league officials and fans. The Lumber Kings traded several veteran players including their team captain, Cameron Hough, to teams in the Maritime Junior Hockey League, one of the few junior leagues in the country that was playing. Fans have been left to wonder when junior hockey will return.
Unprecedented is a word often used to describe the situation. It obviously is. The hope is the mass distribution of a vaccine will allow the league to begin a “normal” regular season in the fall of 2021. If that happens it will be a nice way to mark the 70th anniversary of the Pembroke Memorial Centre which was officially christened on November 11, 1951, a tribute to Pembroke’s war dead from the First and Second World Wars.
For now, we wait for the next Lumber Kings game.