Prior to 2020, if you would have ever told me that the Canadian Hockey League, or one of its member leagues, was considering playing the coming season without body contact, I would have kindly asked you if you were off your trolly, before immediately offering up a sizeable belly-laugh.
But it is 2020, and so much has changed – both in terms of regular, every day life, and the sporting world.
From the very moment that Oklahoma City Thunder team doctor Donnie Strack bravely ran onto the court just seconds before tip-off on March 11, 2020 and announced the positive COVID-19 test of Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gobert, the world turned upside down. Planes were halted on the runway, barrels of oil sold for less than one cent, Easter was cancelled, and the sporting world stood still.
Those who don’t handle change well – myself included – had a difficult time adapting to ‘the new normal’. Masks were to be worn in any and every public place, social distancing became physical distancing, and group gathering sizes were cut down time and time again. Working from home became the new normal. Zoom calls were daily fixtures.
With the economy in shambles, mental health at an all-time low, and the daily COVID-19 count beginning to drop, high-level officials, doctors and health advisors began the great re-opening. Set to occur in various stages/phases, cities, provinces, states, and countries slowly began to return to life pre-COVID. Bars opened up, schools held classes, community clubs began hosting sporting events, parties raged through the night.
The results were horrific.
Caseloads shot up the charts, while second and third waves became grim realities. Those who had been home-tied with quarantines loosened their guards, one again bringing COVID-19 back into the picture, where it slowly moved from the background into the very forefront.
All the while, recreational sports pressed on.
With varying degrees of success, some extra-curricular activities succeeded in fulfilling physical distancing guidelines, while others failed miserably. Co-ed softball leagues regained their popularity, while golf clubs, bicycles, weight benches and basketball nets became needles in haystacks at any sporting goods store.
Wednesday afternoon in Manitoba saw Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin announce that Manitobans – Winnipeggers in particular – had “lost their way”, and promised new restrictions. Amid a deathly month and record-setting month, Friday saw those new restrictions brought to the table, with Dr. Roussin expressing his disappointment in those who continually gather post-hockey game for drinks – whether in the dressing room, in the parking lot or at a neighbourhood pub.
For the most part, youth have been able to do their part in terms of keeping the COVID-19 numbers down at recreational facilities. Community clubs have set policies and procedures in place in terms of arrival/check-in protocol, dressing room seating/spacing, sanitization and strict time limits. But as things currently stand in Manitoba, it is the older demographic that is causing much of the grave concern.
Hockey Manitoba moved into Phase III of its return to hockey framework on October 1, which allows competitive interaction within one team, body contact drills and overall game action between different clubs. Various forms of junior hockey and high-level AAA play have since begun. Mid-grade develpmental and rec leagues have yet to start.
Following the sudden conclusion of Canada’s CHL – comprised of the Western Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League – in mid-March, each individual league has opted to go about a return in a different manner. With assistance from local governing health authorities, the QMJHL began league play much like it would have in any other fall season. The WHL announced an early 2021 start date, while the OHL has kept rather silent on the matter.
Serving as the premier major junior hockey league within western Canada and parts of northwestern USA, the WHL has announced that it will return to play on Friday, January 8, 2021 for the first potential evening of games in the 2020-21 season. Although the date of the return to play has been set, not much more as to schedule breakdown or information on travel has been released, other than the fact that each club will play 50 games, with the hope of having some fans in attendance.
The league has, however, informed teams that every regular season game will be played exclusively within the boundaries of its set division. The East Division will be the only division not consisting of five teams, as all Saskatchewan teams, as well as the two Manitoban clubs will remain together. The Central Division will be made up of the five Alberta-based clubs, the B.C. Division will be the five teams located in British Columbia, while the U.S. Division will be the teams playing out of the United States (Washington and Oregon).
The WHL is expected to continue working alongside the governing bodies and health authorities within Canada and the United States as to maintaining necessary approvals and to ensure the clubs, teams, staff and fans are able to follow appropriate health and safety guidelines, as set in place by those authorities.
With the four divisional schedules yet to be released and a decision on whether or not fans will be allowed in the host city venues for game action, the WHL has announced that all players will join their respective teams following the stretch of time generally looked upon as the ‘Christmas Break’, to begin training in preparation for the January 8 start date.
Also making news on Wednesday was the WHL’s sister league in Quebec. As the QMJHL announced that is has suspended all games in each of its two Quebec-based divisions for a minimum of two weeks. This decision of suspension until October 28 is based upon the recent upswing in COVID-19 cases within Quebec, including six of the 12 Quebec-based teams being located in ‘red-zones’.
Just this past week, the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada announced 18 positive COVID-19 test results, while the Sherbrooke Phoenix also came forward with eight positive cases. Both teams have been in isolation since these separate announcements. The QMJHL teams based out of the Maritimes Division will continue play, with the exception of the Moncton Wildcats, who now have seen heightened health and safety protocol recently put into place by local government.
Last week, a staggering report out of Ontario revealed information that Ontario’s minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries Lisa MacLeod announced that the Ontario Hockey League would not be able to go ahead with a 2020-21 season unless the league opted to remove all body contact, checking and fighting from its rules.
MacLeod stated that the idea of bodychecking goes against all appropriate social distancing measures put in place by governing bodies, and would not be allowable, should the season occur. “It would be safe to say that body contact, unless it’s incremental, will not be permitted as a result of COVID-19,” MacLeod said. “That would pose a challenge in terms of how they amend their play.”
Could junior hockey be played within Canada without body contact? Is hockey even possible without body contact? Most think not. Body contact and body checking are significantly different entities. However, both can be difficult to police. Should the sport minister have announced a ban exclusively on fighting, the news may have been an easier pill to swallow. But taking a stance against the entire idea of body contact is a colossally different avenue.
As seen through the ‘age-appropriate’ dilemma, in which the age/level that body contact should be introduced into the sport has been explored, adding and then taking away body checking, before adding it back again has been a major cause for concern. Players who formerly skated with their ‘heads on a swivel’ always on the look-out for a potential bodycheck, then relaxed that habit as bodychecking was taken out of the sport for one year. Then re-introduced the following season, a spike in concussions and other injuries occurred as players grasped at the idea of re-learning the contact aspect of hockey.
With board battles being blown dead at referees’ discretion, bench seating spread out, face-off contact minimized, and dressing room usage monitored, precautionary steps have been put into play throughout the minor and junior hockey landscape within Manitoba. The Western Hockey League has a plan in place for its hopeful return in the new year.
With obvious steps taken to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, one league – the QMJHL – has shown that jumping back into hockey full-fledged is not the appropriate way to go about the return to hockey. Hockey Manitoba on the other hand, has demonstrated a proactive return that has showcased many steps forward in a slow, well thought out return. The OHL on yet another hand, may see a partial season. Whether it plays with or without contact remains the hottest topic. But that said, is it truly hockey without contact? Is it… junior hockey without contact? We shall see.