The NHL had tentatively planned to start the 2020-21 season on January 1, 2021 and play a full 82-game season. But that plan has now changed. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused schedule adjustments to the NHL and all the other hockey leagues around the world, including the American Hockey League (AHL), the junior hockey leagues and foreign leagues overseas.
In an earlier post back in late October, NoVa Caps examined the current status of the each of the main hockey leagues from North America and Europe. There have been quite a few updates since then.
The COVID-19 pandemic has not only delayed the start of the NHL season, but 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 (ECHL). The pandemic has also impacted the major junior hockey leagues, as neither the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and Western Hockey League (WHL) have yet to start playing or even publish a schedule for the 2020-21 on season.
The remaining junior hockey league, The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), had started at the normal time, but two of their divisions had to pause their seasons during October due to COVID-19 surges, but resumed playing sometime between late October and mid-November. The entire league has now paused the season until early January.
NHL teams, including the Capitals, have loaned prospects to overseas hockey leagues. The league-by-league status is presented below.
NHL – According to Elliotte Freidman of Sportsnet, the NHL and players’ association have engaged in conversations about starting the 2020-21 season on Friday, January 15, with training camps opening on New Year’s Day, just two weeks ahead of the potential season start date. The two sides specifically discussed 52- and 56-game long seasons.
With border restrictions still in place, the NHL would temporarily realign so that all Canadian teams would be in the same division, with the remaining teams arranged into three divisions.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman reported he would not ask the players to participate in bubbles for the regular season. However, he said the NHL was looking at three possibilities a few days ago:
- each team playing at their home arenas,
- playing in hubs where teams would rotate in for 10-12 days and go home for a week, or
- playing in a hybrid system.
The most likely case is that teams would play in their home arenas. Whether fans could attend would depend on local COVID-19 status and restrictions. The NHL would also have to figure out COVID-19 testing before the season begins. Regardless of the plan adopted, the NHL players would have to sign off on it.
AHL – On October 28, the AHL announced that their start date would be February 5, 2021. American Hockey League President and CEO Scott Howson has announced that the league’s Board of Governors has approved this schedule change. There have been no schedule updates since then.
ECHL – During October, the Norfolk Admirals (Independent) and the Atlanta Gladiators (Bruins) opted out of the 2020-21 due to the COVID-19 situation. On November 18, the ECHL announced that the entire North Division, six teams in all, had also opted to suspend operations for the 2020-21 season also. Those six teams are the Worcester Railers (Islanders), Maine Mariners (Rangers), Reading Royals (Flyers), Newfoundland Growlers (Maple Leafs), Adirondack Thunder (Devils), and the Brampton Beast (Senators). Players from those teams became free agents.
The league would move forward with 18 teams. Thirteen teams, including Caps’ affiliate, the South Carolina Stingrays, will start their regular season on December 11 and would play a 72-game season.
Training camp started for on-ice sessions on November 27. Pre-season games started on December 5. The remaining five teams would begin their season on January 15, with training camp to start on January 1. The ECHL has posted their schedule through January 6 on their website. (Update on December 7 — three more ECHL teams have opted out of 2020-21 season.)
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. There has been one report, in a story about a Swiss prospect, Simon Knak, on the Swiss Hockey News site, that the WHL may push their season back to start in February. But nothing has officially been announced.
Ontario Hockey League (OHL)
Back on October 28, the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) announced that their season would open on February 4. Training camps will start on January 23rd with European and American players arriving by January 8 to quarantine.
The regular season would be 40 games. Four teams from each conference would make playoffs, with a total of eight teams in all. No more scheduling details have been released since that announcement.
The QMJHL started their season on October 2, where all regular season games would be played within three six-team divisions. The games would also be played without fans. Due to the growing number of COVID-19 cases in Quebec and local restrictions, the league had suspended play in the two Quebec divisions on October 14 until October 30.
Most teams had resumed play by late October or early November but some teams, including the Gatineau Olympiques, Drummondville Voltigeurs, and Shawninigan Cataractes had not resumed play until after November 15. The Sherbrooke Phoenix resumed play on November 4 but played no games after November 7.
As part of resumption of play, seven teams from Quebec played their contests against each other in a protected environment in Quebec City over a period of 12 days. The players involved had to be quarantined for 14 days prior to that and then get tested for COVID-19.
On November 24, the league postponed seven games in its Maritime Division due to new COVID restrictions in the region. Two teams, the St. John Sea Dogs and the Halifax Mooseheads, had already suspended team activities due to positive tests in their organization. Due to the proliferation of local restrictions in the four provinces in which the league operates, the QMJHL announced on November 30 that they would suspend operations until January 3.
QMJHL commissioner Gilles Courteau said in a statement, “The current situation with the pandemic in the regions in which we operate makes it extremely difficult to play games. With the holidays just around the corner, the provinces in the Maritimes have restricted access and travel, while red zone restrictions in Quebec do not permit us to play.”
For the league as a whole this season, most of the teams have played between 10-16 games thus far, with Rouyn-Noranda, Huskies having played the most, with sixteen while Sherbrooke Phoenix has played in the fewest games, with just five.
The Washington Capitals’ 2020 first round pick, Hendrix Lapierre, plays for Chicoutimi, Saguenéens of the East Division. His team had originally suspended play on October 11 and resumed play on November 3. They continued play until November 26. Lapierre has not played for the team since November 3 because he was participating in Team Canada’s National Junior Team selection camp.
QMJHL Wrapping Up Successful Protected Environment Event
QMJHL: League Postpones Seven Games in the Maritimes Division
CBC: QMJHL Postpones Seven Games Maritimes
QMJHL: League Prolongs Holiday Break
CBC: QMJHL Postpones Games Until January Due to Pandemic
Other Junior Hockey News
The Canadian World Junior selection camp for the IIHF World Junior championships was taking place in Red Deer, Alberta. On Tuesday, November 24, Hockey Canada announced that two players had tested positive for coronavirus. The players went into quarantine at the team’s hotel. All team activities, including an intrasquad game were cancelled.
The following day, Hockey Canada announced that the national junior team selection camp would be paused until December 6. It was also announced that all players and staff members would go through a 14-day isolation period that had already started.
The announcement of the players’ positive tests came three days after a “non-core” member of the team’s staff had tested positive.
On November 26, Lorian Hardcastle, an associate professor of medicine, expressed concern on whether it is even viable to host the World Junior tournament, given the current rate of COVID-19 cases in Alberta which is ten times as high as it was back in August when the NHL playoffs took place.
Meanwhile, the United States planned to hold its selection camp at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Michigan, from December 6-13.
It was also announced that Alexis Lafreniere and Jack Hughes would not participate in the World Junior Championships as their teams, the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils, would not release them.
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. Some regions allow a percentage of fans to attend while others allow none.
On Friday December 4, KHL President Alexei Morozov provided an update on the state of COVID-19 and the league on Friday. He said that 21 people are currently infected with COVID-19 virus, and that a total 486 people have recovered from the disease.
“I’ll give you the numbers right away. At the moment, in all KHL teams, a total of 21 people are sick with a diagnosis of COVID-19, 486 people have recovered. This number includes not only the players, but also the staff of the clubs tested by the KHL, Morozov said.
Two Capitals prospects, forward Alexei Protas and defenseman Alexander Alexeyev, are on loan to KHL teams. Protas is on loan to Dynamo Minsk. Alexeyev is on loan to Salavat Yulaev Ufa. Another Capital prospect, Bogdan Trineyev, had played in three games for Moscow Dynamo. On September 22, two players and the Head Coach of Salavat Yulaev Ufa had tested positive for COVID-19.
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. Between that and local area outbreaks, numerous games had been postponed during the season.
The National League released an updated schedule, with the schedule only “fixed” through the end of the calendar year and games would only be scheduled for Tuesdays and Fridays, which leaves room for rescheduling any games which have to be postponed.
There was news of individual teams having players testing positive. One of the teams, the ZSC Lions, had just emerged out of a quarantine but then three more players tested positive. Their next two games against the SCL Tigers were postponed, as a result. Several players on HC Biel and HC Lugano have tested positive. This resulted in five games getting postponed.
Several clubs expressed the opinion that they would rather complete the regular season and scratch the playoffs, as opposed to the reverse. This is due to the sponsorship money available. Scrapping the playoffs would be a worst case scenario. There was talk of shortening individual playoff rounds.
Two Capitals prospects, Damien Riat and Tobias Geisser, are on loan to teams in the National League, with Riat playing for Geneve Servette and Geisser playing with EV Zug. Two Capitals prospects, Damien Riat and Tobias Geisser, are on loan to teams in the National League, with Riat playing for Geneve Servette and Geisser playing with EV Zug.
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.
Due to widespread infections in their cities in late November, the teams in Rögle, Oskarshamn, and Örebro had to pause team activities for a week and reschedule their games that were to be played during late November and early December, with the announcement of the postponement and rescheduling of those games announced on the SHL website.
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.
Finnish Liiga – The top Finnish league, Liiga, began their season on October 1. Individual teams have had to deal with players testing positive for COVID throughout the season. The teams in Finland could allow up to 40-60 percent of their arenas to be filled. However, in recent weeks, the Coronavirus situation in Finland had deteriorated. This prompted regional authorities to enact stricter restrictions to prevent the virus from spreading, with some regions prohibiting indoor and outdoor events and others restricting gatherings to 10-20 people at most.
Due to the given audience restrictions, on December 2, the league announced that they postponed games through December 19 due to the nation’s worsening Covid situation. The European Hockey League table indicates that play will resume on December 26.
Heikki Hiltunen, Chairman of the Board of the League, commented, “We have done a lot of work during the autumn to ensure the safety of the public, players and employees at match events, and we succeeded well in that work. Now, however, the viral situation has changed for the worse in several areas, so the limitations are understandable.
However, it is not financially possible for us to play without the audience. We believe that the disease situation will be brought under control quickly with these measures and we will be able to continue the regular series. The intention is to continue to play the full regular season. All matches marked for play in the above time frame will be postponed. The league and teams will announce new match dates for the postponed matches later. If the current restrictions are lifted earlier or continued, the League will notify you of the possible consequences immediately.”
Germany (Deutsch Elite League)
The top hockey league in Germany, the Deutsch Elite League (DEL) was scheduled to start in mid-November but has been postponed until 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. The Magenta Cup started on November 12 and is scheduled to end December 8 with the Semi-Finals to take place on December 10-11 and the Final to take place on December 13.
Members of two teams, the Eisbären (Polar Bears) Berlin and the Schwenninger Wild Wings tested positive for COVID-19 so they needed to go into quarantine, per health department rules, and their remaining games in the tournament were cancelled.
The Deutsch Elite League website has no schedule information beyond the Magenta Cup schedule. But the European Hockey Clubs graphic indicates the season will start on December 17 and the DEL site will be updated with the information soon.
By Diane Doyle