By Alex Gallacher
The Haliburton County Huskies, along with the rest of the OJHL (Ontario Junior Hockey League), have enacted a three week pause to the season. The announcement comes fresh off of Ontario Premier Doug Ford announcing that the province would be moving to a modified Step Two of the Roadmap to Reopen plan.
The plan temporarily closes indoor dining and gyms, but also forced many other minor sports leagues to enact a three week pause on their seasons as well.
As outlined in the government’s release, only professional and “elite amateur” sports are allowed to operate with no fan attendance. The NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs took on the Edmonton Oilers last Wednesday in front of an eerily empty Scotiabank Arena, meanwhile the Ontario Hockey League is the only minor hockey league allowed to operate in Ontario under the government’s criteria.
Both the OJHL, the league that the Huskies are a part of, and the Ontario University Athletic (OUA) and Ontario Colleges Athletic Association (OCAA) teams across the province were notably excluded from the list of elite amateur leagues.
Before the most recent game played by the Huskies, a 2-1 loss to the Toronto Jr. Canadiens, the team was running a six game winning streak and was scheduled to take on the Mississauga Chargers on Jan. 7. However, that game and the rest of the January schedule was postponed due to these new guidelines with the league announcing that they, alongside the OUA and OCAA, will be lobbying to get their leagues classified as “elite.”
“The OJHL is committed to completing a full OJHL regular season and playoff schedule for the 2021-2022 season and we have put together various operational scenarios to allow us to do so,” Marty Savoy, Commissioner of the OJHL said. “Although the provincial government has not yet declared Junior A hockey within Ontario as Elite level of sport, the OJHL is lobbying our various governing bodies in an effort to have this level of the sport included within this classification.”
For the Huskies players, with the exception of a few who decided to temporarily play in other leagues, most of them will be staying with their billet families in Minden and Haliburton County. This was primarily done to decrease travel and keep the players safe during the surging number COVID cases throughout the province.
A large portion of the member teams in OJHL elect to have their players live at home, as most of the players live close to the GTA in some capacity. The Huskies are one of the few teams to have most of their players billet, and it has turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Huskies. Not only has it helped increase team morale and bring the players closer together, but it’s been a key factor in keeping everyone safe while they wait for this storm to blow over.
“Most of the guys decided to stay in the area,” Huskies forward Nick Athanasaskos said. “I think for the team as a whole decided that it would be safer up here in the county from COVID.”
Due to the lower population of Haliburton County compared to some other markets in the GTA, it gives the team some flexibility and allows the billeted players to keep themselves safe in the county. Since only small indoor and outdoor groups are allowed, the team plans on holding some COVID safe training sessions to keep the squad ready for the swiftly approaching restart.
“The guys are bummed for sure,” Huskies defenceman and Haliburton-raised Ryan Hall said. “Everyone is trying to keep positive and keep their heads held high for when the season does resume.”
In only their first season being located in Minden Hills, the Huskies have enjoyed immense fan support very quickly. Sitting fourth in league attendance with an average of 301 fans per game, the Huskies’ success came from the community embracing and rallying around the team. For majority owner and Haliburton Huskies alumnus Paul Wilson, the team remains committed to finding a solution to ensure the Huskies can finish the season.
“Most of the team will be staying in the area, so we are organizing workouts in small groups to keep the guys fit,” Wilson said. “We are anticipating that the players will be back on the ice after this shutdown, but the government is hopefully soon going to come up with some changes to allow us to play again. Even if we have to play with no fans, it’s important to all of us that we get the season in.”
As the world works to combat the highly contagious Omicron variant, these young players in the junior leagues across the country have already sacrificed almost a season and a half to the pandemic. While safety still remains the number one factor, most of the players are ever so eager to be back on the ice.
With the Step Two measures set to expire on Jan. 26, pending any new changes in public health measures the team could possibly be back on home ice as early as Jan. 28 against the North York Rangers at the S.G. Nesbitt Memorial Arena.