The puck stops here.
In a Thursday morning press conference, Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries Lisa MacLeod threw cold water on the prospect for the Ontario Hockey League resuming play any time soon.
"The ground has shifted significantly," the minister, who is also a hockey fan, said, referring to worrying COVID-19 conditions. She added that it would be "irresponsible" to send young athletes out there given the current health situation, and that sign-off would be required from medical officers of health.
"We will not be putting young athletes at risk," MacLeod said, leaving the door open to a season once health levels are appropriate. She did not specify what health levels the province would need to see to resume play for the OHL season, which typically begins in October.
Ontario set another record for daily COVID-19 cases on Thursday with 4,736 new cases. Intensive care units are also bursting at the seams and the province has declared a state of emergency.
MacLeod explained that she sometimes meets with the OHL "several times a week" and they have gone over different scenarios on what a season might look like. But details at the moment are scant. "What format this may take is still under discussion."
Those details include how many people could be in the building, how cohorts could mix, testing protocols, and how a hub or bubble format might work.
MacLeod added that the OHL and the province had reached an agreement on a return to play but within two days Ontario's worsening health crisis nixed that path.
COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the OHL season, which includes 20 teams with players aged 16 to 20. Seventeen of those teams are located in Ontario. The province previously announced a $2.3 million aid package to support the league in mid-March.
The OHL has frequently hoped to start its season since last fall and initially expressed optimism that it would begin in early October. That did not come to pass due to rising COVID-19 numbers at the time, and the league eyed a succession of dates to start its season, with MacLeod criticizing it in February for not providing the level of detailed health and safety planning the province needed to see.
Her tone changed on March 10 when she said that she was "feeling great" about the prospect of a season, with details to be ironed out and announced in "two to three weeks." That was over one month ago and since then intensive care units have experienced an unprecedented crisis, daily case numbers have hit new highs and the province has been put under a state of emergency. The state of emergency isn't scheduled to be lifted until at least early May.
The OHL had hoped that a 24-game regular season would have been in the cards but the repeatedly pushed deadlines have made that more difficult. MacLeod previously said that the hope was to get the season in the books before the NHL entry draft, which would give athletes a chance to showcase their skills for pro teams. The NHL entry draft is tentatively scheduled for July 23–24.
Even NHL teams, with vastly more financial resources to respond to the pandemic, have struggled to ward off COVID-19. The Vancouver Canucks are currently shut down, with 25 players and team personnel having been infected with the virus. Other teams that have been hard-hit by COVID-19 include the New Jersey Devils, Dallas Stars, and the NBA's Toronto Raptors.
OHL players, who have a limited playing career, had hoped that the season would have a path to resumption. Some players and their parents started a petition to lobby the government to resume play, but that appeal did not trump health concerns.
MacLeod also said the province is not yet willing to approve the Canadian Football League season given Ontario's current COVID levels.
More to come.