Sting, OHL set sights on Dec. 1 to start new season

The Ontario Hockey League announced plans Wednesday to begin the season Dec. 1 as long as players, fans and staff can attend games safely.

Sarnia Sting's Ryan Mast (3) battles Guelph Storm's Keegan Stevenson (12) in the second period at Progressive Auto Sales Arena in Sarnia, Ont., on Sunday, March 8, 2020. Mark Malone/Chatham Daily News/Postmedia Network

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The Ontario Hockey League has almost four more months to get ready for its 2020-21 season.

The league announced Wednesday teams will play 64 games apiece – four fewer than normal – in a schedule set to run from Dec. 1 to April 29, 2021.

“It’s good news,” Sarnia Sting general manager Dylan Seca said. “Now we know we’ve got a date to work with. There are some logistics we need to sort out and prioritize, but it’s a great situation that we’re in.”

Much still needs to be finalized. There’s no start date for training camps and no schedule. And teams don’t know how many players will be allowed in camp.

“We’ll have some more information soon, for sure, on camps and when we can bring players in and the number of players and all of those things that everyone’s wondering,” Seca said.

Another big issue is the Canada-U.S. border, which has been closed since March during the COVID-19 pandemic and could remain shut for many more months.

The OHL has three American teams – two in Michigan (Flint and Saginaw) and one in Pennsylvania (Erie) – plus several players who hail from the United States.

There’s also the question of whether fans will be allowed in the rinks.

“We have a lot of important details to still work out,” OHL commissioner David Branch said to the London Free Press. “We wanted to get the broad strokes out in return to play, structure and schedule. We play such a role in our facilities and communities and want to try to be part of the solution for everyone to get back to some form of normalcy.”

Sixteen teams will make the playoffs.

The Memorial Cup – the Canadian Hockey League championship – is scheduled for June 17-27, 2021. It will be hosted by either the Oshawa Generals or Soo Greyhounds.

There’s a good chance teams will play only within their conference during the regular season to cut down on travel and hotel visits.

“That’s likely the case if you just look at what makes sense across the province outside of sport,” Seca said. “They are trying to work on cohorting and limiting the number of interactions.

“I think it’s safe to assume that we’ll be likely dealing with just the Western Conference or even a number of teams within the Western Conference. We don’t know for sure.”

The league has been working with government and health agencies to ensure players, staff, billets and fans will be safe whenever the schedule begins.

If a player tests positive for COVID-19, could the entire season be put in jeopardy?

“Health and safety is everything as we move along and have a better idea of the landscape,” Branch said. “We will determine what we must do in terms of procedures – testing, temperature checks and protocol – if, heaven forbid, someone were to test positive. We would never think of bringing a player back into start-up if it wasn’t a safe environment.

“That may not satisfy everyone and we would respect that (decision to not participate) without question.”

Players will stay at home until camps open. Teams have been working with them and their parents on school plans for awhile, Seca said.

Academic plans will be tailored to each player based on what’s best for him and which courses he needs.

“I’m confident, on the school side, although we don’t have a lot of answers right now, we’ll have the answers when we need them. It’ll be fine,” said Seca, a high school guidance counsellor and student success teacher in Midland.

The Sting have been in touch with players regularly during the shutdown. Players were disappointed to hear the schedule wouldn’t start until December, although they knew a delay was coming, but they were also excited to get a start date, Seca said.

“The good part is we’ve been in such constant contact with our players and all of our hockey operations staff that we’d be ready to go within a short amount of time,” he said. “If they say, ‘OK, here’s when you bring them in,’ we’d be ready to go. We’ve been doing a lot of planning.”

The 2019-20 campaign was stopped in mid-March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Remaining regular-season games and the playoffs were soon cancelled.

The Sting had already been eliminated from the playoff race was play was stopped, but they had four regular-season games cancelled.

“It didn’t end the way it needed to end, and obviously not for COVID reasons,” Seca said. “It was not a successful year. In all of our planning and talking as a group, we’ve identified some areas that we know we need to improve on. We’ve given them a couple tasks to work on. The idea is to fix those little holes.”

The Sting have already signed three players from the OHL draft (Max Namestnikov, Zach Filak and Ryder McIntyre) and import draft pick Alex Geci of Slovakia during the off-season. They’ve traded for veteran defenceman Cameron Supryka and added ex-NHLer Mark Mancari to the coaching staff.

“It’s been almost hockey as normal, with it not being normal,” Seca said. “But we’ve been going as if we’re ready to start in August. We’ve now just got more time to have our players be that much more prepared.”

The Sting expect both import players – Geci and Sweden’s Eric Hjorth – to be in camp this fall.

“Both are 100 per cent committed,” Seca said. “Both are still coming even with the news about the delayed start. I spoke to both today. Both Alex and Eric are good to go.”

– With files from Ryan Pyette

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