PJHL pushes back start date by one month to Jan. 1

The Provincial Junior Hockey League has pushed back its start date for the coming season by one month to Jan. 1.

Dresden Kings' Darien Davis (25) and Blenheim Blades' Noah Tetrault (8) chase the puck in the first period at the Ken Houston Memorial Agricultural Centre in Dresden, Ont., on Friday, Dec. 27, 2019. Mark Malone/Chatham Daily News/Postmedia Network

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The Provincial Junior Hockey League has pushed back its start date for the coming season by one month to Jan. 1.

The junior C league announced a targeted start date of Dec. 1 in August, but its board told teams recently in an e-mail message “there is no possible way to start regular hockey at that date.”

PJHL officials said they’ll continue to monitor the situation as the league moves towards “the next possible start date” of Jan. 1.

“Is that actually going to happen?” Mooretown Flags general manager John Baker asked about a January start. “It’s up to what the governments allow us to do. There’s not a junior team out there that’s going to operate without fans. Until we have some kind of a further opening-up that allows for fans, it’s just not going to happen.”

In order to play games – with spectators in the stands – teams must meet the often-changing rules of the municipalities, arena operators, public health units, provincial hockey governing bodies and even the province itself.

“It’s so convoluted,” Baker said. “There’s so many entities you have to deal with, it’s crazy.”

Last season ended in mid-March during the playoffs because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While we would definitely like to get going, we are following the rules and guidelines of the Ontario government, local health units and our governing bodies,” PJHL commissioner Terry Whiteside wrote to Postmedia.

“If we get the opportunity to play competitive hockey this season, the PJHL is prepared to do so while keeping our players, staff and volunteers as safe as possible. In the meantime our teams are participating in skill development sessions and have started to create two-team cohorts to enter into modified game play as allowed by our governing bodies.”

The Blenheim Blades are among the teams that have been practising since September. They’ve already signed 20 players.

“The rules just keep changing and we just keep inching forward,” Blades general manager Bob Price said. “Hopefully, eventually we get the go-ahead and they can get a vaccine for the virus.”

The Blades and Wheatley Omstead Sharks have made a two-team bubble. They plan to play four to six exhibition games by following modified rules, such as no intentional body contact and no faceoffs. Each team would dress 10 skaters and one goalie.

“If these are going to be rules and they’re going to be in play for a while, we’ve got to get used to it sooner or later,” Price said.

The Blades and Sharks can be in a bubble because both are covered by Chatham-Kent Public Health. They’re waiting to file all the necessary paperwork until the number of active COVID-19 cases in Chatham-Kent is lower.

“We just don’t want to start up in a bubble and then somebody catches something,” Price said.

The Flags and Petrolia Flyers spoke about making their own bubble in Lambton County, but that was awhile ago. Baker is open to revisiting the talks. The teams’ return-to-play plans would need approval from the arenas, Lambton Public Health, the Ontario Hockey Association and the Ontario Hockey Federation, he said.

“The kids absolutely want to play,” Baker said. “Our mandate is to provide an opportunity for the kids, and we’re going to do everything that we can to try to make that happen. But understand a lot of it’s out of our control, too.”

Even if teams get the OK to play, there’s no guarantee they can have paying customers. And if there are no fans, there may be no season.

“Financially, how are you going to make that work?” Baker asked. “The NHL could make it work. They could run everything through TV revenue, but there’s no way we can do that.”

Several COVID-19 outbreaks in Ontario have been linked to Halloween and Thanksgiving gatherings. Some in the PJHL are wondering if trying to start the season so soon after Christmas on Jan. 1 is wise.

“There’s been some discussion that maybe we would look at a February date, but that hasn’t really come to fruition just yet,” Baker said.

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