His mind entirely focused on that night’s Barrie Colts game in Owen Sound, then interim head coach Todd Miller paid little attention as head coach Dale Hawerchuk, who was away from the team battling cancer, told him on in a pre-game call that the NBA had decided to suspend operations because of the COVID-19 outbreak, and to be ready as the OHL could soon follow suit.
As Miller headed back home on the bus with the team fresh off a 4-1 win against the Attack, he made his usual call to Hawerchuk to go over what was good and bad about Barrie’s play.
Little did Miller know at the time of the March 11, 2020 victory it would be more than a year before Barrie would take the ice again.
“All of a sudden, he said, ‘Todd be ready, you guys are going to be shut down. You guys are not going to be playing the rest of the year,'” Miller explained of the conversation with Hawerchuk, who would sadly pass away from the disease five months later.
On today’s one-year anniversary of that last game, Miller still recalls everything leading up to a pandemic that would not only cancel the remainder of the junior hockey season, it would bring the sporting world to a grinding halt.
“I was like, ‘Dale, come on! There is no way this is happening,'” Miller said over the phone from Regina, Saskatchewan, where the Brandon Wheat Kings new assistant coach is busy preparing his team for its first Western Hockey League game of the season on Friday against the Moose Jaw Warriors.
“I kind of laughed it off to be honest with you. I was like, ‘OK, they’re shutting that down, but it won’t get down to Canada. It won’t get here,'” Miller recalled telling Hawerchuk. “Sure enough the next day I get a call from ownership to call all the kids and we have to have a meeting that we’re sending everybody home, but we’ll be back in a week though.”
A surging young Colts team was five games away from a playoff run and all excited about what appeared would be a first-round date with the Oshawa Generals.
“We all thought, ‘OK, see each other in a week or two and we’ll get ready for the playoffs,'” Miller said. “And here we are a year later.”
While news the OHL and province are drawing closer to an agreement on a return to play plan has him excited, Colt’s defenceman Nathan Allensen doesn’t hide how hard the pandemic has been on him and his teammates and how much it has taken away from them.
It sucks,” Allensen said. “I think just that (Owen Sound) game itself we were playing great; we were playing as a team. I think just that time of year, after the trade deadline, we were all getting used to each other and all the new pieces. We were just getting going under (Miller). He was a great player’s coach and we were all having fun.
“We were all getting ramped up for playoffs, because most of the guys haven’t had playoff experience yet, so I think everything was just going in the right way and it was just devastating when we got the call we were going home. Now we’re sitting here today (a year later) and still unsure of what’s going on.”
COVID wiped out the final five regular season games along with last season’s playoffs and it appears, at the very least, most of this year’s 68-game schedule.
“I feel for the kids,” Miller said.
Especially overagers Josh Nelson, Aidan Brown and Chris Cameron, whose junior careers were over just like that. Now the pandemic is threatening to do the same to captain Luke Bignell and Vic Hadfield, who are both vying to earn themselves a professional contract.
“We’ve seen it time and time again, like a Justin Scott who had a great playoff and got himself a contract,” Miller said of the former Colt forward who would sign with the Columbus Blue Jackets. “Aidan was really coming and Josh was really coming. Those guys I really feel for them, because if you have a good playoff it shows that it goes a long way in their last year of their career.
“That’s kind of been taken away from them and it’s trickling into this year with some of the 19-year-olds who are now overagers. It’s frustrating to see those guys not getting that opportunity.”
As tough as this has been on him, Allensen feels for his veteran teammates.
“It totally sucks for them,” the 19-year-old said. “I would never want that to happen to me, let alone those guys. Those guys had long OHL careers and they’re all great guys and great teammates and good hockey players, so it really sucks for them. I feel for them. It’s rather unfortunate.”
Miller still keeps in contact with most of his former players. He made sure to talk to Hadfield, who got to play his first professional game with the Manitoba Moose after the American Hockey League team signed him to an amateur tryout.
While he’s moved on with the Wheat Kings, Miller is still hoping the OHL will return and he’s optimistic that will happen soon.
“I don’t want to see all the leagues going and Ontario not going,” he said. “These players need to play and I think it’ll just be a matter of time.”
Miller had no idea what was coming after that win in Owen Sound a year ago.
“If you had told me it would be a year later and I was in Regina in a bubble at a university going from winning our last game and our team being successful to being here, I would have bet the farm on that,” he said, laughing out loud. “This is what happens.
“This COVID has been a real tricky thing and I’m just happy to land on my feet with a good organization. The people are great here.”
Miller is happy at least they got a win in that last game. A year later, the coach still laughs as he recalls the story of that night in Owen Sound and how rookie Connor Punnett earned first star honours after recording the first two goals of his OHL career.
Punnett had been playing some games up on forward, but was back at his usual spot on the blueline. Up 3-1 late in the third period, Punnett makes a beeline for the Owen Sound crease.
“I yell out, ‘Where’s Punnett going?'” Miller recalled. “He was on their goal line. We’re trying to hold a lead and he’s down on their goal line for a tap-in and he scores and makes it 4-1. He came back to the bench and I yelled at him, ‘If you ever do that again in a 3-1 game, I’ll kill you.’
“I busted out laughing and it was hilarious the camera caught it. That was a funny part of that.”
That game seems like years ago now for Miller and the Colts. He only hopes now today’s anniversary is the last.