The ECHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation came out Wednesday with their latest plans for this season and they involve such a bastardized version of competition that you have to begin to wonder whether the game – at all levels from the NHL right down to minor hockey – shouldn’t consider simply shutting down for 2020-21.
I mean, it’s getting ridiculous. And it just seems as though leagues all over the world are desperately trying to jam a square peg into a round hole in a desperate effort to play this season in the midst of the second wave of a global pandemic, the likes of which the world has not seen for a century.
The IIHF announced Wednesday that it has cancelled 18 tournaments, which brings to total of events cancelled to 28 since the pandemic hit in March. The women’s qualifying tournament for the 2022 Olympics has been postponed. All it has remaining now is the World Juniors, the men’s and women’s World Championship and the under-18 World Championship. For now.
The ECHL, meanwhile, announced that an entire division has voluntarily suspended play for the season, bringing the total number of teams that won’t play in 2020-21 to eight. The league is left with 18 teams, 13 of which are scheduled to start playing Dec. 11. An additional five, pending approval from local jurisdictions, plans to hit the ice for the first time Dec. 15. The NHL is optimistically still hoping to begin Jan 1, while the American League has moved its start date back to Feb. 5. The Ontario League is hoping to get going the day before that, but as of this moment, it will be without bodychecking. And all of it will be done in front of no live fans.
The Quebec League, with help from the provincial government, has been the only major junior league to play this season and it has done so with middling results. “It’s been a disaster,” one NHL scout said. As of today, some teams in the QMHJL have played 14 games, others have played three. The teams in Quebec’s red-zone have gone into their own mini-bubble in an effort to make some of those games up, but you just get the feeling that once the league plugs one hole, water comes gushing out of another one. Meanwhile, the NHL scouts who are evaluating these players for the NHL, for the most part aren’t even allowed in the buildings. And there will be no scouts at the World Juniors this year. In Ontario, minor midget players are competing in private for-profit leagues under other names, but the OHL is discouraging its scouts from going to those games because their considered rival leagues to Hockey Canada.
And the thing is, it’s not getting any better. In North America at least, almost all the numbers for COVID cases appear to be trending upward as the second wave takes hold. The curve is not being flattened and while there have been some promising developments on the vaccine front, nothing will likely be available until at least the spring. Some minor hockey associations are already cancelling their seasons. In late October, a total of seven outbreaks that made up 54 cases of COVID were linked to sports teams in Ottawa. In Massachusetts, 30 outbreaks encompassing more than 100 cases have been traced back to hockey.
In fact, the Center for Disease Control in the United States has identified hockey as a potential super-spreader of the virus. “The indoor space and close contact between players during a hockey game increase infection risk for players and create potential for a super spreader event, especially with ongoing community COVID-19 transmission,” the CDC wrote in a report in October. “The ice rink provides a venue that is likely well suited to COVID-19 transmission as an indoor environment where deep breathing occurs, and persons are in close proximity to one another.”
Nobody, but nobody, wants to see the hockey world shut down. Because it sucks very much to have to do that. There are hundreds of thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on there being games played, from the kid who’s picking up extra pocket money refereeing minor hockey to the arena beer vendor to the guys who work at The Hockey News. It’s awful. On Thursday nights, I used to go play hockey and then drink beer with my teammates. Now, I skip the hockey and go straight to the beer drinking. It’s not near as much fun. It’s screwing with our mental health, not to mention our physical well-being. Hockey gives us a reason to get up and move. It brings us together and it provides us with endless fodder for conversation, which enriches relationships.
But doesn’t it just feel like it’s getting to the point where all the gymnastics and rescheduling and uncertainty and risk just aren’t worth it? It’s certainly getting to that point for me.