The Ontario Hockey League has delayed the February start of its 2020-21 season. Players' sticks are shown during the Ice Hockey World Championships Group A match between Russia and Denmark, in Moscow, Russia, on Thursday, May 12, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Ivan Sekretarev

Ontario Hockey League pushes back start of season again because of COVID-19

Ontario Hockey League pushes back start of season again because of COVID-19

TORONTO — The Ontario Hockey League has delayed the February start of its 2020-21 season.

The OHL announced Wednesday the season will not start on Feb. 4, the date targeted earlier this year. Players were scheduled to report to their teams in early January.

The decision follows Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s decision to put the entire province into lockdown starting Saturday as cases surge during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sport Minister Lisa MacLeod said that Ontario’s lockdown orders allow for professional and high-performance athletes to train within the province but not to compete.

“At this point we do not have any further guidance from the chief medical officer of health to allow them to return to play,” said MacLeod. “That work is ongoing.

“Right now we’re focused on getting our health-care system at a capacity where it’s not overloaded. That’s our No. 1 priority.”

MacLeod said that any decision to cancel the season would be up to the OHL. She added that the Ontario government has already announced that grants will be made available to small businesses to help them through the province-wide shutdown period and that her ministry plans to announce additional funding for sports organizations in the new year.

An added complication is that the OHL has three teams — the Erie Otters, Flint Firebirds and Saginaw Spirit — based in the United States and the border remains closed to non-essential travel until at least Jan. 21.

“Just like with MLB and the NBA, those decisions on border crossings would be made by the federal government so those are key considerations (the OHL) would have to take in,” said MacLeod.

“We would look at what return-to-play would look like and what that would mean in terms of sanitation, social distancing in the arena before they get on the ice, things like that.”

The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is the only one of three Canadian major-junior hockey leagues to have started play this season. Play was suspended Dec. 1, with the league saying it hopes to return with its 12 Quebec teams playing in four markets in late January. No date has been set for the return of the QMJHL’s six teams in Atlantic Canada.

The Western Hockey League had hoped to start its season in January, but announced another delay earlier this month.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 23, 2020.

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press

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