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CHL looking into potential of government aid

The Canadian Hockey League has hired an Ottawa-based lobbyist to look at the potential for financial help.
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File photo. Brad Coccimiglio/SooToday

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The COVID-19 pandemic has made things difficult for teams around the Canadian Hockey League.

With the possibility of a delayed start to the 2020-21 regular seasons in its three member leagues – the Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and Western Hockey League – the CHL has hired an Ottawa-based lobbyist to discuss the potential of financial aid for its 60.

According to the federal lobbyists’ registry, the firm of Bluesky Strategy Group discussed the possibility of “accessing funding for CHL teams impacted by COVID-19” with federal officials.

The discussion happened on June 22 when Bluesky Group officials discussed the request with Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault along with other government officials.

The CHL hired the firm in May and the firm has an initial discussion with members of Guilbeault’s office on May 11.

Locally, the Soo Greyhounds haven’t been involved in any of the initial discussions.

“To this point, we haven’t had any direct involvement in those types of discussions,” said Greyhounds President and Governor Tim Lukenda. “That’s something that’s happening at the CHL level and they’re exploring different possibilities on behalf of all of the teams across the country. There haven’t been any specific discussions at a team level to this point.”

Lukenda also spoke of the uncertainty surrounding the start of the OHL season and the impact ticket revenue has on teams at the major junior level.

“The tricky part for any team in this situation is that you have expenses that are ongoing and uncertainty of when you’re going o have revenues again,” Lukenda said. “We rely on our league on ticket revenue and fan attendance. Right now, we don’t know when that’s going to start and what restrictions there might be. That’s the challenge. We would normally have a slow part of the season and we still employ our staff during the off season, so it’s not that unusual to this point in terms of the financial impact, but it’s more projecting what that impact could be if we’re not able to get started in a regular timeframe.”

In an interview in late-June, OHL commissioner David Branch spoke of the hope to get in a full, 68-game regular season, but also said the league “would be hard-pressed to operate” without fans.

“Our business model is predicated on spectator support and it’s the number one revenue stream we have,” Branch said. “Without it, we would be hard-pressed to operate.”

Lukenda said on Friday that the start of the regular season remains up in the air, but the league is continuing to explore as many options as they can.

“Things are changing on a daily basis,” Lukenda said. “For a while, they were getting better in both Canada and the U.S. and more recently there have been some challenges in the U.S. As a league that has teams on both sides of the border, we have to try to manage our way through that situation. At this point, there’s more uncertainty than there are answers. What we’re spending our time doing is trying to explore all of the possible scenarios and what would be the implications on different timelines and different schedules.”

The uncertainty surrounding the regular season has also left the timeline for a decision on the host of the 2021 Memorial Cup up in the air.

Branch said earlier this summer that a lot of plans are on hold because of the delay in making a decision on the regular season and what the potential dates of the tournament will be.

“It’s accurate of David to say we’re kind of in a holding pattern right now,” Lukenda said. “We’re anxious to have the opportunity to try to put our best foot forward. Right now, it’s not only the travel restrictions, it’s also the timing of the Memorial Cup, which is tied into the other decisions of when we would start as a league and how long that will go. The feeling is that we need a little more certainty around the Memorial Cup dates before it makes sense to be talking about specific plans in either community and selecting a host city.”

Lukenda also said the team is putting the time to good use while also being confident that the city could pull off a quality event, even if it means a little less time to prepare after the host city has been announced.

“We, as an organization, have been taking the extra time to make sure that we’re putting the best presentation we can forward and position our community and our team as the best host for the Memorial Cup,” Lukenda said. “We’ve been making productive use of our time. In other years, you have a little more time after the selection to do all of the planning to actually organize the event and to host the event. As long as we know in a reasonable period of time, I’m confident that the Sault would be able to rally and do a great job in pulling together all of the volunteers and all of the things we would need to do to put on a great event.”

With the city being in a similar position to the team with regards to the uncertainty going forward, Lukenda spoke of the support the team has received in the meantime.

“The city’s been very cooperative and very supportive,” Lukenda said. “They’re in the same situation in terms of a lot of uncertainty for all of the things that they’re doing in terms of tourist events and economic activity and financial resources in the community. They understand the challenges that we’re facing, but We know they’re very interested in an event like this and agree that it could be the perfect opportunity to generate economic activity. Hopefully, we’re out of the coronavirus concerns at that point in time and it’s the perfect timing to have a boost to our local economy.”