Why Hasn't the OHL Returned Yet?

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Junior hockey has been approved for games in nearly every Canadian province – except the biggest one.

Luke Durda/OHL Images

This past weekend, top-end 2021 draft prospect Dylan Guenther absolutely ripped the hood off the Lethbridge Hurricanes. The gifted Edmonton Oil Kings winger had eight points in his first two games of the WHL season, leading his squad to back-to-back victories. Edmonton’s goalie for the pair of victories? Another high-end 2021 draft prospect, the giant Sebastian Cossa.

Meanwhile, in the QMJHL, Halifax’s Zachary L’Heureux was named the league’s player of the week thanks to five points in two games for the Mooseheads. L’Heureux is also tracking to be a first-rounder in 2021.

And where are all the OHL stars amidst these players? Still playing in Europe – if they’re lucky. Brandt Clarke is in Slovakia, Mason McTavish is in Switzerland with Brennan Othmann and Brett Harrison is in Finland. They’re all potential 2021 first-rounders and they don’t have a home league to play in right now. But why not?

Out West, the announcements keep dropping: British Columbia’s health minister says WHL hockey has now been approved in that province, while the Alberta Jr. A League just unveiled its initial Return to Play schedule hours after revealing that its first round of Covid-19 testing yielded all negative results from 367 players and staff. So if everything stays on course, we’ll see Brooks Bandits defenseman and potential 2021 draft prospect Corson Ceulemans playing in real games again very soon.

Here in Ontario? Nothing concrete from the government. The OHL community (not to mention the grassroots minor hockey world) has been growing increasingly frustrated at the lack of transparency – to say nothing of the lack of action.

Now, of course everyone wants a safe return, but that doesn’t explain why nearly every other province in the country is ahead of Ontario right now. Yes, the province still has a lot of Covid-19 cases, but it’s no worse than other places when you factor in Ontario’s big population.

There’s also a matter of where the virus is mostly found: Toronto and its surrounding areas. Most OHL teams are located in smaller cities and towns. The county where Owen Sound is located had three new cases today. Kingston has nine active cases.

So it doesn’t take a master strategist to look at the situation and devise a plan wherein OHL hockey could resume, perhaps in small bubbles as the QMJHL has been doing this season. Teams such as Mississauga, Oshawa, Hamilton probably shouldn’t play at home right now, but there’s no reason why most other cities couldn’t host bubbles.

If we’ve learned anything from the recent resting out West, it’s that junior players and staff will be vigilant about their own safety if there is a chance to play real games right now. The success of the AJHL and WHL – where there have been no positive tests and nearly 500 negative tests done already – speaks to that.

And the OHL have been good soldiers about this. When rumors leaked out a few weeks ago about a possible Return to Play framework being established, the league quickly squashed the gossip – no sense making the government look stupid when you’re trying to partner up with them.

But the clock is ticking. The Ontario government already approved NHL teams to play in the province and more recently, gave the green light for AHL teams in Toronto and Belleville. So what’s the hold-up for the OHL?

The kids are way past antsy. The teams see everyone else in the country either playing or about to start. On top of the obvious mental health benefits of every player returning to the rink for rigorous competition, you have a number of high-end kids who have very realistic dreams of the NHL and they’re not sure if they’ll get a fair viewing this season. So again, you have to ask the provincial government: what is the hold-up here?