The Ontario Hockey League could soon be ready to drop the puck.
That's according to Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Minister Lisa MacLeod, who expressed a new level of optimism about starting the OHL season shortly.
"I'm feeling great," she said about the prospect of a major junior hockey season that was originally scheduled to start in October, but has been delayed multiple times due to the pandemic. "There's still a few outstanding details with the chief medical officer of health," she added.
That indicates progress from where the OHL and the province were at one month ago when MacLeod called out the league for a return-to-play plan that was short on details and asked them to come back with NHL-level health and safety standards and procedures in order to protect the well-being of players. She did not provide details about what health and safety measures were lacking at the time.
MacLeod told QP Briefing that the league is still a few weeks away from confirming a return to play. "We're asking folks to wait two to three weeks," she said, at which time the ministry will be able to provide more details. In the meantime some OHL players have expressed impatience and started online petitions in their eagerness to resume.
MacLeod also said for the first time that some form of a bailout package for the league may be in the works. If Ontario provides one, that would follow the precedent Quebec set for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. "We know they'll probably also need some financial compensation, so we're looking at what that might be as well," she said.
Due to the pandemic, the OHL season will look different. Rather than a typical length of 68 games, the league could play a regular season of 24 games. Travel could be limited by the use of city hubs, a possibility that MacLeod raised earlier.
MacLeod added that even if the league does receive sign-off from Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams, teams will also need to receive the thumbs up from their local medical officer of health. MacLeod said that if approval is granted, players would be allowed to play with contact with some health measures in place.
MacLeod's optimism comes at a pivotal point to decide whether there will be an OHL season. Elliotte Friedman reported on Hockey Night in Canada last Saturday that National Hockey League teams want an answer on whether the NHL draft will take place this year in order to assess the value of draft picks that tend to get traded around the trade deadline. This year's NHL trade deadline is April 12 and the NHL entry draft is scheduled for July 23.
The minister has previously expressed hope that a season can happen in advance of the NHL draft in order to make it possible for some players to advance their careers to the professional level. If a season does not occur, then an alternate scenario could see the NHL hold two entry drafts next year.