OHL still working on return to play, but cancellation of Memorial Cup shows window is closing

There have been no games in the OHL since last March

On the day the Canadian Hockey League announced the cancellation of this year’s Memorial Cup, a relentless pandemic also appears to be closing the window on any return to play for the Ontario Hockey League.

With COVID-19 cases surging across the province and across the country, the CHL decision to scratch the national junior hockey championship for a second straight year comes as little surprise.

“Two years in a row, it’s hard to believe it’s been that long. It is tough,” Barrie Colts acting general manger Marty Williamson said after learning of the decision. “Obviously hopefully next year will be a special year and we’ll be grateful for a lot of things, but right now it’s a tough time and a tough announcement today.”

The news comes on the heels of the league and province saying they have been working diligently over the last few weeks to hammer out a return to play.

Both remained optimistic they would work out a plan to get the players back on the ice soon, but the latest surge in cases along with the arrival of new variants of the coronavirus across the province have forced schools to close and another one-month lockdown.

After Tuesday’s announcement on the Memorial Cup, the OHL reemphasized its commitment to doing all they can to return to play.

“If you believe the vibes in the rumour mill that we were getting some traction and getting close and then all of a sudden (Premier Doug Ford) shut everything down and everything seems to have gone backwards,” Williamson said. “Again I don’t know, but obviously with the count numbers being as high as they are, hockey is not on the frontburner. It’s on the backburner and we just got to wait this out and hope we get some divine miracle if we’re going to play this year.

“Right now we got to get the case counts down, we got to get vaccines.”

The timeline for any kind of return is shrinking if the league wants to keep its normal schedule for next season.

“I know they’re trying to get something going,” Williamson said. “They still want to play, but I think the word ‘shrinking’ is a key word right now. The timeline is getting very difficult to fit anymore.

“We (teams) haven’t really had some talks until there is news. I feel for the league, too. We all want answers, but they got nothing to say to us. Until this pandemic goes down a little bit, there’s no news.”

Williamson has kept in contact with his Barrie players through all this and admits it’s tough not having better news for them on the return to play front. He feels for the players who so bad want to just do what they love doing.

“You really do,” he said. “It’s nice to have a quick conversation with Brandt Clarke, who is off to the Under 18s (world championships in Dallas, Texas later this month), that he is going to at least get to play for a couple of weeks there, but the majority of guys would just love to be playing.

“It’s always been there, but I think it has really set in now how big the (pandemic) problem is and this third wave, or whatever you want to call it, and the variants out there. The guys realize what’s going on.”

His heart breaks for overage captain Luke Bignell and Vic Hadfield who might not get the chance to properly finish their OHL careers.

Williamson would love to see them get another chance on the ice with the Colts, but he admits he doesn’t have a crystal ball to see where all this is leading.

“The fact of us playing just isn’t a priority right now,” he said. “We sit and wait every day and hope we get good news, but I see these (case) counts at 4,000 and it just  makes it tough to think things are going to turn around quickly enough for us to get something in.” 

Banner: Barrie Colts defenceman Brandt Clarke will be taking part in the upcoming U-18 world championships, but the window on a return to play for the OHL appears to be closing after the CHL announced the cancellation of this year’s Memorial Cup tournament.