Oct 31: Ontario’s Premier, Doug Ford, tweeted this evening that the provincial government is “engaging” with the OHL to create a safe return to play plan, and specifically notes that he would like to see the league return with body checking. “To date no decisions have been made,” says the Premier.
Oct 30: The Ontario Hockey League had already made a major change to their season in response to the continued spread of the Coronavirus pandemic, delaying the start of the 2020-21 campaign until February and announcing a shortened 40-game schedule. Yet, due to another decision influenced by COVID-19, the league will look very different when it does return in a few months. Sportsnet reports that Ontario’s minister of sport, Lisa MacLeod, has announced that body checking will not be permitted in OHL games this season.
Of course, this is not as straightforward as it may seem. While MacLeod stated that she arrived at this decision based on the spread of COVID-19 in the QMJHL and that she felt “removing purposeful physical contact from the game was a necessary step to preventing the spread.” However, many in the media have already asked if this opinion was really backed up by any evidence or the opinion of any experts in the field. The use of the word “purposeful” also suggests that incidental contact will still be allowed. Or will it? Where will the league draw the line and what will the punishment be? There’s also the major issue of jurisdiction in this case. The OHL includes three American teams – two in Michigan and one in Pennsylvania – who do not have to abide by the health ordinances of Ontario. There is still a question as to whether the border will be open at that time to accommodate those clubs, but if they do participate this year, will body checking be allowed in their home games?
With so many questions still to be answered, it is no surprise that TSN’s Darren Dreger reports that the decision is not quite official with so many factor still needing to be discussed. Similarly, the OHL’s stance right now is more or less “no comment”, stating “Until such time as we arrive at an agreed upon Return to Play protocol with the Government of Ontario, the League will have no further comment on the matter of body contact.”
If body checking is completely removed from OHL competition this year, it will make the jobs of NHL Draft hopefuls and NHL scouts even more difficult. Without a 2020 postseason and given the shortened 2020-21 regular season, players will have less opportunity to display their talents for scouts ahead of the 2021 Draft. Now, the Ontario government is asking those players to play a completely different style of hockey in what will already be a small sample size. Without intentional contact, it will be immensely difficult to not only evaluate defensive ability, but also to get a frame of reference for offensive ability. Play will be much faster and much more offensive than normal, with defenseman and forecheckers limited in their ability, goalies exposed by a much more open game, and scoring forwards unable to show that they can produce even with opposing contact. The players hurt the most will be those who haven’t already been identified as elite, surefire first-rounders in next year’s draft. Those lucky few have already been seen by scouts, but the dozens of other OHLers who needed the season to prove they have NHL potential have just had their season length slashed and now their game fundamentally changed.