The NHL has tentatively planned to start the 2020-21 season on January 1, 2021 and play a full 82-game season. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused schedule adjustments to all hockey leagues around the world, including the American Hockey League (AHL), the junior hockey leagues and foreign leagues overseas. In this post we examine the current status of the each of the main hockey leagues from North America and Europe.
The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the start of the NHL season. It has also delayed the start of the main minor leagues that feed into the NHL, such as the American Hockey League (AHL) and the East Coast Hockey League. The pandemic has also impacted the major junior hockey leagues, as neither the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and Western Hockey League (WHL) have started their schedule.
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (WMJHL) has started, but two of their divisions have paused their seasons due to the pandemic, with only one division currently still active.
Given that so many prospects had not played ANY hockey since March, NHL teams, including the Capitals, have loaned prospects to overseas hockey leagues. The league-by-league status is presented below.
NHL – On Friday October 23, Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly held a video conference call with NHL general managers to discuss a variety of topics, with the schedule for the upcoming 2020-21 being the main focus. The league had been targeting January 1, 2021 as the start date, with the season to begin with the Winter Classic that was to take place in Minnesota. However, the league has now officially cancelled the Winter Classic for this season, with Minnesota hosting the Classic on January 1, 2022 instead. The league also cancelled the NHL All Star Break.
Bill Daly said, “The goal is still to start as early as Jan. 1 and to play a full season. Having said that, we also recognize, depending on a host of different things, that it could take a different form and we might not be playing a full season, we might not be playing into the summer, we might not be starting on Jan. 1. So there’s still a lot of uncertainty. The full story of the meeting can be found here.
AHL – With the original delay of the NHL, the AHL announced back on July 30 that the earliest start date for the AHL would not be until December 4, 2020, due to coronavirus concerns. The AHL would continue to work with their member clubs and also monitor developments and local guidelines in their cities. There have been no official updates to that status since July, however, it is believed the league will announce an extended delay in the coming days. (Update: on October 28, the AHL announced that their start date would be February 5, 2021.)
ECHL – With both the NHL and the AHL having delayed starts, the ECHL Board of Governors announced on August 5 that a revised start date for the 2020-21 ECHL Season was approved. The anticipated start date is December 4, 2020, for a full 72-game schedule, however, like the AHL, the start date will likely be extended to better align with the NHL.
Ontario Hockey League (OHL) – The Ontario Hockey League, one of the three major junior hockey leagues in Canada, announced on August 5 that the league would start the 2020-21 season on December 1. As of September 17, the league announced that they still planned for December 1 as the start date and November 15 as the start of training camp. (Update: on October 28, the OHL announced their start date will be February 4, 2020.)
On October 7, there was talk of banning body checking in the league, along with discussion about whether the US based teams: Erie, Flint and Saginaw to either temporarily move to Canada for the season or only play against US based squads because the border between the United States and Canada is still closed except for essential travel. Two other teams, the Mississauga Steelheads and the Ottawa 67’s, are currently in “hot zones”, where the number of cases of COVID-19 have approached their earlier peak.
Western Hockey League (WHL)
The Western Hockey League, one of the three major junior hockey leagues in Canada, announced on October 15 that their season would start on Friday, January 8, 2021. The WHL is continuing to work with government and health authorities in the Western Canadian provinces and the Pacific Northwest states to get the approvals to commence play. All regular season games would be within division only, with a Manitoba/Saskatchewan division, an Alberta Division, a British Columbia Division, and a US Division. Players are to report to their teams following Christmas break.
Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) – The QMJHL started their season on October 1. The league planned that all regular season games would be played within three six-team divisions. The games would also be played without fans.
By October 14, the league announced that they would suspend play in both of the Quebec divisions until October 28, due to COVID-19. The league said it would be impossible to operate due to the fact that six teams out of the twelve teams in those divisions were located in “red zones” where sports were banned. In reality, most of the teams in the East and West Divisions have not played since October 11, with two teams, the Quebec Remparts and Sherbrooke Phoenix, having not played since October 4. The teams in the Maritimes Division, except for Moncton Wildcats, continue to play. The Moncton Wildcats could not continue play due to New Brunswick government restrictions in the area but resumed play beginning on October 23.
The Washington Capitals’ 2020 first round pick, Hendrix Lapierre, plays for Chicoutimi, Saguenéens of the East Division who have not played since October 11.
National League (Switzerland) – The National League (Switzerland), the top hockey league in Switzerland, started their season on October 1, and there have been COVID-19 outbreaks on individual teams.
The league considered taking a break but currently plan to play until November 2, the start of the international break when international tournaments generally take place. The league will make a decision between November 2-8 but will evaluate the situation as part of the Federal Council’s meeting on Wednesday October 28.
Several cantons have decided that events with more than 1000 spectators would be banned once again. The canton of Bern was the first to impose stricter restrictions on major events so all teams located there have to play without spectators.
Now the cantons of Jura, Neuchâtel, and the Valais will follow suit starting on October 24. The HC Sierre team is currently in quarantine until October 30 as five players have tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday October 21.
Options to be discussed include: restarting the season in January, as well as have teams from the restricted canton of Bern play games outside their canton border. Several of the team presidents are against the idea of pausing the season until January and wrote an open letter to the Federal Council that pleaded, “Let our players play.”
Kontinenal Hockey League (KHL) – The KHL began their season on September 3. The season is in progress although several teams have had COVID-19 outbreaks. In fact, Jokerit, a team in Finland, has had multiple games postponed this season due to COVID. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl forfeited a game against Kunlun Red Star since they refused to travel to that team’s site. There were other instances of postponed games. The size of gathering, including the number of fans allowed in the arena, varies by region. In late September, despite the fact there were 87 positive cases detected in the KHL at that time, KHL President Alexander Morozov did not consider pausing the season.
Two Capitals prospects, forward Alexei Protas and defenseman Alexander Alexeyev, are on loan to KHL teams. Protas in on loan to Dynamo Minsk. Alexeyev is on loan to Salavat Yulaev Ufa. On September 22, two players and the Head Coach of Salavat Yulaev Ufa tested positive for COVID-19.
Swedish Elite League (SEL) – The season of the Swedish Elite League (SEL) began on September 19 and is currently in progress. For much of the year, the size of gatherings was limited to 50 persons. That limit was recently increased to 300 persons. Individual games have been cancelled due to outbreaks of COVID-19.
The Capitals currently have two players on loan to Swedish teams, forward Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and defenseman Bobby Nardella. Jonsson-Fjallby is currently playing with Vastervik IK. Nardella is currently playing with Djurgardens IF. Djurgardens had their game of Tuesday October 27 postponed and rescheduled for January 4, 2021 due to COVID-19.
Finnish Liiga – The top Finnish league, Liiga, began their season on October 1. Although individual teams have had to deal with players testing positive for COVID. The teams in Finland can allow up to 40-60 percent of their arenas to be filled.
Deutsch Elite League (DEL) – The top hockey league in Germany, the Deutsch Elite League (DEL) was scheduled to start in mid-November but has been postponed to December, with no actual start date set at the moment. When the DEL season starts, the crowd size is anticipated to be 20% of normal. Eight of the teams are participating in the Magenta Sports Cup as a tune up before the season starts.
Below is a graphic showing the status of all of the main European Leagues, as of October 22, their original planned start dates, their new start dates, the number of fans they will allow into arenas, among other things.
By Diane Doyle