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Some light at the end of the tunnel as OHL sets potential return date

With dates in place for regular season action as well as the Memorial Cup, OHL commissioner David Branch said Wednesday, details on the selection process for the tournament could be announced 'over the next couple of weeks'
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File photo. Brad Coccimiglio/SooToday

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It’s nearly four months down the road, but the Ontario Hockey League has a plan in place to return to action and begin to 2020-21 regular season.

On Wednesday morning, the league announced plans on how it will approach the new season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and for the teams, including the Soo Greyhounds locally, it brings with it some anticipation.

“You can sense a little bit of hunger there with everybody now starting to kick in knowing when this is going to be,” said Greyhounds general manager Kyle Raftis. “It was always tough throughout the summer.”

“It should be a cool pacing because with (NHL) hockey starting now, that’s going to go until October, then you’ll have the NHL draft and hopefully our training camp can start soon after that,” Raftis added. “I’m excited about it. For a long time there, people were talking about different options and it wasn’t always so positive. This is a great outcome for our league and our players.”

If all goes according to plan, the OHL regular season would open on Dec. 1 and teams would play 64 games, just four short of a normal regular season schedule.

The regular season would then conclude on April 29, 2021.

The playoff schedule will see 16 teams advance to the post-season as normally would in any other season.

The difference will be the opening two rounds will feature best-of-5 series’ before transitioning to best-of-7 series for the conference final and league final.

The Memorial Cup, which is set to be hosted by the OHL in 2021, would begin on June 17 in either Sault Ste. Marie or Oshawa.

Prior to COVID-19 forcing the cancellation of action last season, the league planned to announce the host city for the event in April.

In an interview in June, Branch didn’t give a specific starting date for the 2020-21 season but did say the league planned to do everything possible to play a full 68-game schedule.

“It’s an important factor, no question,” Branch said at the time. “We are a gate-driven league. Our teams each lost several games at the end of last season and lost all of their playoff opportunity, There’s been significant challenges there. That feeds into hopefully being able to play as man regular season games as possible.”

At the time, Branch also spoke of the importance of having fans in the buildings across the league.

“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.”

Branch said in an interview on Wednesday afternoon that the schedule will be set up to reduce travel costs for the teams when possible.

“Our schedule is going to be structured in such a way to make every effort to reduce travel and reduce costs, reduce hotel nights for safety purposes as well,” Branch said. “In doing that, it will break away from some of the things that we’ve been doing in past practices for developing a schedule.”

Raftis spoke of how teams will play teams within their conference more than usual and could see teams within their division even more than in past years, though the Greyhounds could be in the unique situation of seeing more of teams like the Sudbury Wolves and North Bay Battalion due to geographic circumstances.

“With us, it’s going to be a little bit different because, taking the uncertainty with the border and we’re cutting through Michigan for a majority of our division, there might be some extra games sprinkled in against some of the northern teams,” Raftis said. “I haven’t seen a final schedule, but that’s the assumption of how some things may shake out.”

Dates for training camp are up in the air at this point, as is exactly how it will play out ahead of the regular season.

“The thing we’re not sure of is when training camp is going to be,” Raftis said. “But if you break down the pure time between now and December, it almost gives us the same amount of time as if we went to the final in May to an August training camp. It’s a positive spin for a lot of these guys because player of this age group, the amount of time they can put in in the gym, they can work on their game, and then still come out of it with a 64-game schedule makes a lot of sense for them. Our big hope for a lot of this was there was not a lot of ice time early in the summer. A lot of players were putting that extra time in in the gym where a lot of times they can make some big gains from it. For us, it’s about streamlining it. If it’s a while before they’re in the Sault, we’re working with their strength guy, with their on-ice coach to make sure that we’re adding to their game for what we need from them when they step on the ice.”

Raftis also said, player numbers could be different in camp than what it would normally be for camp. Exactly how the league will deal with exhibition games remains up in the air as well.

When it comes to the OHL’s three American clubs – the Erie Otters, Flint Firebirds, and Saginaw Spirit – the league has “had discussions on it with the government” when it comes to the closure of the border between Canada and the United States.

“We’re working through some thoughts and ideas on how we might bring some level of comfort to government officials that would allow our teams to go across the border and return,” Branch added.

As far as the Memorial Cup host city, Branch said Wednesday that the announcement of the plan to return means the league can begin “working through the selection process.”

Branch added that the league could announce details on the selection process “over the next couple of weeks.”

The league announced on March 12 that it would be pausing the 2019-20 regular season as the pandemic worsened in North America.

The announcement came as teams were winding down the regular season.

The Canadian Hockey League announced the cancellation of regular season action in its three member leagues – the OHL, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and Western Hockey League – six days later.

On March 23, the CHL announced the cancellation of the playoffs in all three leagues as well as the annual Memorial Cup, which was scheduled to begin on May 22 in Kelowna, B.C.