What did we miss on the ice at Budweiser Gardens this year?
Connor McMichael scored 47 goals in 52 games at the age of 18. A year older and with a busy Ontario Hockey League schedule, he would have been on track to become the first 60-goal scorer for the London Knights since Patrick Kane.
There was hope that he would lead a power game with the German star JJ Peterka. Nashville Predators second round player Luke Evangelista was supposed to be a 100 point producer. A young defense would have made strides and would have been assisted by one of the OHL’s most trusted goalkeepers, Brett Brochu.
The establishment of another championship team was under construction.
“It felt like we missed a Memorial Cup team in 2020,” said Knights Governor Trevor Whiffen. “We were very busy and I think this team has proven for over 20 years that they put a strong product on the ice every season. Dale and Mark Hunter always think ahead. We’ve been to five Memorial Cups in my 18 years at the club.
“But who would have thought when we quit last year that 13 months later we still wouldn’t play?”
Whiffen believes a restart was so imminent that the premier weighed on one of the league’s board calls. The league’s executive committee worked hundreds of hours devising a return plan for the game.
“We had weekly gubernatorial calls and we probably talked about it more than any other problem,” he said. “I’ve probably spoken to the hunters about COVID more often than in the middle of a season when we were vying for a national championship. On the day the Department of Health gave us permission to start a season, Doug Ford talked about how much he supported the OHL, what work we were doing, and appreciated our patience.
“Later that night, the cabinet met and issued a new ban. Here we think we’re going to announce a launch and that’s what happened. The circumstances we face change from day to day at times, and the extension of the lockdown really was the last nail in the coffin. “
The Knights are as well prepared as a team for the 2021 OHL draft and their group of 2004 born rookies remains impressive.
There will be no forced rebuilding in the near future.
“You can talk about the London Knights, but there have been other clubs that have put together really good teams this year,” said general manager Mark Hunter. “Then it happens and you feel for the whole league, but I can’t sit there worrying about things that I can’t get my hands on.
“We put a lot of time into our young men to make sure they are better people and hockey players. I can worry about how we perform and how we behave for our fans and our community.”
The league hopes to kick off its 2021-22 season on time with a normal 68-game schedule.
“The vaccinations are changing the game and I see no obstacle to OHL hockey this fall,” said Whiffen. “I expect the vast majority of the Canadian population will be vaccinated by then. I know anti-vaxxers exist and I don’t understand. I got mine the first minute I was able to sign up. When it comes to hockey, COVID doesn’t respect the dividing lines. Nobody (outside of the NHL) is playing at a sustainable level.
“Is it safer to play in the NCAA? It’s not that you’ll be virus-free. It chooses people at random. Research and government are doing their best to make this happen, but the top priority for players is to stay safe, keep training, and look forward. “
He added, “There is still a long runway ahead of us – even as a junior hockey player.”