In the end, hope was not enough. As much as the OHL planned, as nice as the league played with provincial officials, there will be no major junior hockey in Ontario for the 2020-21 season - making it in the only province in Canada with a team to miss out. OHL commissioner David Branch knows that he can't justify that to his players, but in a wide-ranging Zoom press conference, he genuinely sounded like a man who did everything he could to make it happen.
"If the opportunity had presented itself, we would have seized it," Branch said. "It was never presented. Conditions never got to where we would get approval."
So what made Ontario so different? Right now, Covid-19 is rampaging through the province as part of a vicious third wave and the vaccination roll-out has been anything but smooth. But Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia all had bad waves themselves earlier in the year and yet the QMJHL and WHL found a way to get games in the books.
One of the biggest hurdles in Ontario was convincing the health authorities of a safe Return to Play format and that process was slow. It was slow at the NHL level for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators and it was slow for their AHL affiliates in Toronto and Belleville.
According to Branch, Ontario's chief medical officer used the Leafs and Sens as a benchmark and the OHL was looking into four hub cities, but couldn't afford the standard of protection required by officials. Again, we have seen successful Return to Play scenarios elsewhere, however - the QMJHL has run different hubs thanks in part to government funding, while WHL provinces such as Alberta and Saskatchewan also received money from their provinces. Branch said that the Ontario government "supported the notion of supporting the league financially" for testing and the implementation of a safe environment for players, but the only real commitment we've seen was $2.3 million towards the OHL's scholarship fund.
Nonetheless, Branch was complimentary of Premier Doug Ford and his government.
"Personally, I respected what they had to do," he said. "Hockey was just one little piece in our system - people losing jobs, losing businesses. Our Premier was always there saying 'we have your back, we support you.' "
Branch also noted that the OHL did come painfully close to announcing a return a few weeks ago: a plan had been approved by the CMO and the Premier, but then Covid cases spiked again in Ontario and the viability of a return was shelved.
I've said it before, but it feels like Ontario missed its window on this. Covid cases in most OHL cities were very low just two months ago and some semblance of a schedule, with teams divided into hub cities, could have been pulled off. Talking with OHL teams behind the scenes, it sounds like government bureaucracy was a huge problem, whether it be Minister of Sport Lisa MacLeod or the Ford administration as a whole.
While Ford has claimed Ontario's restrictions to be the toughest in the nation, he has controversially allowed some of the worst infection sites (notably indoor workplaces) to remain open while striking down proposals for paid sick days for essential workers. Meanwhile, sports and outdoor activities have been shut down or restricted. Not only has the OHL been on hiatus, but so has minor hockey - which, along with its own merits, impacts the OHL going forward, too.
I was also curious why the OHL's three American-based teams – Erie, Flint and Saginaw – weren't allowed to play each other, given that hockey has been played in Pennsylvania and Michigan all season long in other leagues. According to Branch, the OHL and its owners decided for a "One league, twenty teams" approach, snuffing out that idea.
Now, the OHL looks ahead. With no games played since March 11 of 2020, NHL scouts have a heck of a job on their hands when it comes to OHL talent for the 2021 draft. Branch is hopeful for a special CHL event in the future.
"This is an area we will now focus on," he said. "From a CHL standpoint the league is looking at an expanded version of the Top Prospects Game. Whether or not we'll be able to do that with travel restrictions remains to be seen."
Scholarships for this season will be honored and Branch gave credit to the league's owners, who were willing to do whatever it took to have a season. Training camps for the 2021-22 season are expected to start Labor Day weekend, while Branch anticipates a regular 68-game schedule, assuming it is safe to do so at the time. He also expects all 20 teams to return.
It was obvious from the press conference that Branch was hoping for a better outcome this season. Players, fans - everyone wanted to see the OHL come back in some safe form and seeing the rest of the country play hockey while Ontario was left behind was frustrating.
"I'm not sure we can necessarily justify that to our players," Branch said. "They have their goals and aspirations. They want to get back to playing."