NORTH BAY, Ont. — The North Bay Battalion, with the rest of the Ontario Hockey League, has seen its 2020-21 season lost to the coronavirus pandemic.
The decision to forgo the season was announced Tuesday in a news release issued by Commissioner David Branch in Toronto after a telephone call among the OHL’s board of governors.
“We have worked tirelessly with the Province and the Chief Medical Officer of Health for the past year on different scenarios and different windows of opportunity, but the reality is the conditions in Ontario have never been right to start and complete an uninterrupted, safe opportunity for players to showcase their skills,” Branch said in the release.
“We owe it to our players and their families to be definitive. We were committed to return and play this season, but our hopes and desires have been dashed by the cruel realities of COVID-19.”
Battalion owner Scott Abbott, speaking from Toronto, said that abandoning the season was painful.
“The decision, appropriate as it is in the circumstances, hits hard, especially given what we felt were solid indications of an improved and exciting team that we would have put on the ice.
“But we must prioritize the health and safety of players, staff, families and the public.”
General manager Adam Dennis said the development was “certainly not the news any of us wanted to hear today.”
“The past year has been challenging for all players, staff and families of those involved within our league. We appreciate the league’s efforts behind the scenes and understand the challenges they faced throughout their ongoing talks with the government.
“At this point, we’ll begin to focus our energy on returning next season and hope everyone can stay safe and healthy throughout these trying times.”
The 2019-20 season was suspended and playoffs cancelled in March last year, with the Battalion playing its last game March 8 before having six regular-season games wiped out. The Memorial Cup tournament was cancelled last year and again this season, despite the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Western Hockey League having played a limited number of games.
The OHL, which last saw teams on the ice on March 11, 2020, saw tentative start dates for this season of Dec. 1 and Feb. 4 come and go before a return date was announced as undetermined. But it never happened.
Earlier this month the OHL and Ontario government reached agreement on a return-to-play plan, but the extended stay-at-home order last week, combined with rising pandemic cases across the province, made it impossible for the OHL to hit the ice.
Mere weeks ago, the league and province had reached an agreement for a return to play but, on the eve of announcing details, pandemic conditions worsened dramatically as new variants of concern took hold, posing significant threats to the health care system.
The plan envisioned a shortened season to be played in hub cities in accordance with the most rigorous containment protocols possible. The goal was to showcase the OHL’s 450 players for scouts preparing for the 2021 National Hockey League Draft, men’s Canadian university hockey programs and Hockey Canada’s summer evaluation camp for the World Junior Championship.
“Ontario has the strongest health restrictions of any jurisdiction in North America, and we understood that this would make a return to play scenario extremely difficult,” noted Branch.
“The openness the Premier (Doug Ford), Minister Lisa MacLeod, the Office of the Chief Medical Officer and key staff have afforded us has not gone unnoticed and is greatly appreciated. We all agree that providing certainty for our players and families, even if it is not the answer they would want to hear, is the right thing for everyone’s health and safety and for the mental health challenges faced by many of our young players.”
In 15 of 17 Ontario communities, the OHL club is the most popular and significant sports and entertainment property. The league has a direct financial impact of more than $126 million and an indirect impact of more than $265 million on the Ontario economy. OHL member teams raised in excess of $4 million in support of Ontario charities in 2019-20.
The OHL is the top provider of talent to the NHL. In the 51-year history of the modern NHL Draft, the OHL has produced 2,410 selections, representing about 20 percent of all players chosen. Since 2013, the OHL has produced more first- and second-round picks, more forwards and more defencemen than any other league in the world while developing the second-most goaltenders.