There are more important things in the world right now than junior hockey. Players will be the first to tell you that.
But they're not happy. And they have every reason to feel that way.
For many, their 20-year-old season was their final chance to show scouts, schools and other teams what they're capable of. It's always a make-it-or-break-it year. It's not usually the stars that need a strong final season the most: it's the mid-pack guys, the late-bloomers or the glue guys who want to prove they can play hockey at a higher level, either to help earn a degree in school or to earn some side cash while playing the game they love.
For many players in Saskatchewan right now, they feel left out.
If you're not familiar with the recent happenings in Saskatchewan, here's a brief rundown: According to Taylor Shire of Global Regina, the plan was to have seven of the league's 12 clubs play out of Weyburn, Sask., with the remaining teams opting to sit out the rest of the season. Shire reported that SJHL president Bill Chow submitted a division hub model that was similar to what the WHL is doing with the East Division in Regina, but was denied.
Shire also reported that SJHL president Bill Chow said the league had a process in place they felt would be able to overcome interactions in the assigned hotels but said the government would not approve the plans.
The SJHL was one of the first junior leagues to return to the ice, with teams playing games back on Nov. 6 before the final action took place on Nov. 23, right before the league shutdown for what turned out to be the rest of the season. 150 fans were allowed in the building. Back in September, the SJHL announced that a Melfort Mustangs player contracted the virus, but the league remained able to start the season and get at least a bit of play time before what was hoped to be a short break.
The league had a committee together to present a return to play plan to the government of Saskatchewan. The committee was made up of Flin Flon Bombers coach/GM Mike Reagan, Nipawin Hawks coach/GM Doug Johnson, Humboldt Broncos coach/GM Scott Barney and Estevan Bruins coach/GM Jason Tatarnic.
The committee presented a proposal on Monday night that was denied by Saskatchewan's government business response team. Jamie Neugebauer, a hockey media personality in the SJHL, said the government wasn't the one that pulled the plug, but after being told they could wait another two or three weeks while waiting to see how the new COVID-19 variant crisis would evolve, the league decided to end the season there. The news began to trickle around the league that evening before the SJHL made it official on Tuesday.
In Neugebauer's post for Dub Network, he said that he knows that a large number of players had been isolating for three weeks to a month so they could participate in the bubble as soon as it began. He also mentioned that many players weren't looking for or accepting jobs in the hopes that the season would resume.
The semantics about how everything went down is a big story, but in the end, many 20-year-olds are left without a place to play. Per Hockey Canada rules, players can not participate in a CJHL league after the age of 20. That means any players born in 2000 will be unable to return in 2021-22, so while a September return is great for those who are still eligible, but there's no second chance for the overage players that called the league home in the future.
So for those without a commitment for next season, this could be it for their hockey career in any meaningful way. It's something hundreds of players have to deal with across Canadian junior leagues each year, but it's usually done under different circumstances under their own control. That's not the case now, or for those who were shut down prematurely when the pandemic first reared its ugly head a year ago. For anyone who started the season injured, they didn't even get the opportunity to say goodbye to the game they've played for nearly their entire lives.
"I think all the players would want to play this year," Neugebauer said. "But I think for some, that desire diluted as they saw hope was waning."
It's been a few days since the announcement, but the pain hasn't subsided - and it won't for quite a while - for the kids impacted. The SJHL's news is just a start - don't be surprised if we start hearing more about other leagues in the near future. But to be the first group to really take a big hit, especially after starting the season in a promising fashion, it hurts for those just looking to play - especially for those that could have had opportunities to play down south instead.
"To me, it really doesn't make any sense," said Vinny Prospal, a 20-year-old with the Melfort Mustangs and the son of former NHLer Vaclav Prospal. "Especially with the WHL bubble going on in Saskatchewan as we speak. I really thought we were going to get approved and be able to finish off our season.
"I guess the only thing I can say right now is that I'm still shocked."
Prospal said that after the season shut down in late November, players were told the plan was to come back in early January. But as that time frame drew closer, the reality of a return started to fall farther away from reality.
"I just tried to do what I can control for the most part," Prospal said. "I had my hopes up because me and my other American teammate, Ben Chase, we drove up to Saskatchewan two and a half weeks ago to start our two-week quarantine. Just in case, if we were to start playing, we'd be ready to go off the bat."
Because he played pro hockey in the Czech Republic, Prospal can't go the NCAA route, but said he is looking for USports opportunities. That's the route Humboldt Broncos winger Jarrett Penner is headed after committing to Trinity Western University earlier this month.
But that doesn't make the loss of his final junior hockey season sting any less.
"I know in Humboldt, we built a team to win the championship this year," Penner said. "I'd say everyone's just super disappointed that we didn't get the all-clear, especially when the WHL is playing in a bubble here, too. There are bigger priorities than us, but it just sucks that we were considered important enough to keep going."
"I feel like we got shafted," a defenseman in the league said. "I know the league did what it could to make things work and I applaud them for it. But it stings seeing friends in other leagues hitting the ice while I sit at home."
Dayton Deics, a defenseman with the Estevan Bruins, tweeted that he had to do a combined 40 days in quarantine as a dual citizen from the United States. He said he was told that a possible bubble was in the works to make the season work, but the news of the season cancellation put an end to that.
"To say that this experience hasn't affected my mental health is a joke," Deics said in a note tweet. "Sadly, I'm not alone in that regard and would like to know if health officials and gov't leaders have given much thought about what we have all collectively gone through?"
Neugebauer said coaches did all they could to give the players hope, but with teams in different situations, getting all the clubs on the same page was a challenge.
"There wasn't agreement, even among the coaches, there weren't agreements among all the clubs, there weren't agreements anywhere about what should exactly be done. But this committee did their absolute best and work extremely hard to do what they thought would make the most sense to the most people."
The general consensus was that everyone was trying their best to make everything work out, from the league administrators down to the teams and players themselves. But in the end, it just wasn't that simple.
"Our coach said that they were trying, but they had both arms tied behind their backs with a blindfold on," said Jack Lenchyshyn, a defenseman with the Nipawin Hawks. "He kind of kept it as optimistic as he could. But it's tough to be optimistic when you're saying the same thing that you were saying in December or January, right?"
Like many, Lenchyshyn is still searching for a scholarship opportunity. He says he has talked to a couple of different Canadian schools but mentioned that it's hard to showcase what you can do with just five games before an early season shutdown.
"The fact that I didn't even really get a chance to showcase where I could have been at was a little disheartening," he said.
"Before the season started, I reached out to all the NHL teams asking them for protocol advice, and five teams were generous enough to send me what they could of their plans, plus what the NHL even sent them," said Jason Savill, a trainer for the Flin Flon Bombers. "Because the way I looked at things, if we could mimic them as closely as possible, that should be good for us. So you mean to tell me that during this entire time, nobody from the government thought to do that too?"
After losing the end of the 2019-20 season and nearly the entire 2020-21 season, could it impact player signings in the future? Jr. A hockey across Canada is in that same situation now, with some leagues, such as the OJHL, not even receiving a chance to play at this point in the year. Even the major junior OHL is at risk of losing an entire season – a huge blow considering the QMJHL and WHL have both hit the ice already.
That's a concern for another day, but the disappointment players feel over the news is clear. They knew Tuesday's announcement was a reality from the beginning, but one they hoped would never be the case. Most aren't blaming any groups in particular, but that doesn't take away from the disappointment of losing essentially an entire season.
"A season we'll never get back," Deics said. "Another season with no ending, only what ifs?"
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed by players/personnel are their own.