The OHL season isn't slated to begin until Feb. 4 for the 2020-21 season, but a bomb dropped Friday afternoon when it was revealed that Ontario Minister of Sport Lisa MacLeod confirmed in a speech at the Empire Club of Canada that no bodychecking will be allowed this year, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
This came as quite the shock to the league's GMs, who did not have a heads-up about such a development. MacLeod, who was being interviewed at the club by hockey personality Nick Kypreos, cited Covid outbreaks in the QMJHL - which has already begun play - as one reason for the decree. Players from Sherbrooke contracted the virus after playing Blainville-Boisbriand, as did two officials who worked the games between the two squads.
Now, the officials obviously weren't bodychecking anyone in the game and some OHL GMs are wondering why hitting is MacLeod's target.
"If it was mandatory face shields on helmets, I would understand," said one GM. "But if you're worried about close contact, what about having 15 players packed together on a bench all game?"
The other surprising aspect of the news is the timing; assuming everything holds to form, the OHL will be one of the last junior leagues in North America to return to the ice: along with the QMJHL, regular season or at least exhibition games have already begun in the NAHL, USHL and several Jr. A circuits in Canada. A lot can change from now until February, which is why one NHL scout I spoke to urged patience: he's taking a wait-and-see approach to the news.
While a non-contact league may sound like a non-starter for OHL franchises, it's worth considering that the Ministry of Sport could provide funding for the league under these emergency situations, where the season has already been shortened to a 40-game schedule (down from its usual 68 games) and no one knows how many fans - if any - will be allowed in the arenas when the season begins. The QMJHL has already received $12 million from the province of Quebec, for example, dispersed evenly amongst the league's 12 Quebec-based teams (maritime provinces, where the league's remaining teams are located, have not yet followed suit).
And while junior hockey fans would no doubt welcome their local OHL teams back to the ice with open arms, a game without body contact would be drastically different for a group of players hoping to play in the NHL in the near future. From a scouting perspective, how do you measure a player's true talents if they don't have to worry about getting hit? There are forwards who largely play on the perimeter right now, thus limiting their overall effectiveness and NHL potential. With no hitting, those kids could have a field day - but any scoring bulges would be temporary. Adjusting to the new rules would also play havoc on the game.
"You better hope you're on the power play," said one GM. "Because there's going to be a lot of penalties."
The OHL itself was not expecting this news today and provided the following statement to The Hockey News: “Until such time as we arrive at an agreed upon Return to Play protocol with the Government of Ontario, the League will have no further comment on the matter of body contact.”