Give credit where credit is due: The owners of the Ontario Hockey League stepped up this week. The major junior circuit's board of governors had a meeting on Wednesday morning which led to the league reaffirming its commitment to the season in the face of new provincial pandemic orders which will severely limit a team's ability to make money right now.
This of course comes on the heels of last year's washout, where the season was ultimately cancelled when the OHL couldn't get the go-ahead from the provincial government, making it the only league in the CHL not to play some semblance of a schedule: The WHL ran a 24-game slate for its teams, while the QMJHL got as far as crowning a playoff champion in Victoriaville. So the only provincial government that couldn't get its act together was Ontario.
It goes without saying that like many businesses these days, the OHL's teams took a hit last year and the first half of this season served as a much-needed oasis with fans back in the stands - albeit at reduced capacity (so it was something, but certainly not the past normal).
As of now, no fans will be allowed in Ontario arenas until Jan. 26 at the earliest and with the way the Omicron variant is running wild in the province, we can't assume everything will be fine by then. So for the foreseeable future, the only teams that will be able to make any gate revenue are the league's three American franchises: The Flint Firebirds, Saginaw Spirit and Erie Otters. Neither Michigan or Pennsylvania have arena capacity limits right now.
I happened to be on the phone with an NHL scout yesterday who pointed out how impressed he was by the owners' decision: They wanted the kids to have a season and they were putting their players ahead of the money.
Now, it's fair to point out the CHL has been controversial when it comes to money and players in the past: In 2020, the three leagues under the CHL umbrella settled class-action suits in this area for $30 million. But it's also fair to give the owners kudos when they do right.
Last year's lack of a season had a major impact on both development and scouting for OHLers and there's a trickle-down effect this year: Scouts always keep an eye on underage players to get an initial book on them, but this season's NHL draft class was deprived of that opportunity. So now, the scouts are playing catch-up.
"With the way things are now, any of the book we used before in doing this job has gone right out the window," said one NHL scout. "When you go to a game now, you're looking at almost a double-cohort of players. And one group you have to make a really important decision on."
And with games being postponed this year due to team outbreaks, scouts have been forced to change their travel plans on the fly, catching whatever games they can. So on top of playing catch-up from last year, they have to make sure they get in all their viewings this season amidst an unpredictable schedule.
Everyone knows about the OHL's top prospect, Kingston's Shane Wright, as he is expected to go first overall in the 2022 NHL draft. Wright entered the OHL a year early thanks to the Exceptional Status he earned, meaning he had a 2019-20 campaign in the league (and he won CHL rookie of the year honors for good measure). But for other potential NHL first-rounders such as North Bay's Ty Nelson, Guelph's Matthew Poitras and Saginaw's Pavel Mintyukov, this is technically their rookie OHL campaign and it would have been even more stressful if the OHL and its owners had decided to truncate the season. Heck, it also would have been way more stressful for any player trying to prove his development worth to an NHL team, whether he had been drafted already or is trying to catch on as a free agent.
If we've learned anything from the pandemic, it's that predicting the future is a fool's game. But in the short term, the OHL's owners really stepped up for their players in confirming their commitment to pushing forward with the season.