Fans and former players of the London Knights are saddened after the Ontario Hockey League announced the cancellation of its 2021-21 season on Tuesday.
The league cited the province’s worsening COVID-19 numbers, along with the recently extended stay-at-home order, as the reason behind its decision.
The announcement comes a week after Ontario Sports Minister Lisa MacLeod said it would be “irresponsible” to approve a return to play.
Walter Nowobranec, who has followed the London Knights for 58 years, said he supports the decision, even though he’s disappointed.
“I definitely agree with it,” Nowobranec said. “I’m just looking forward to all of this changing. There’s some tremendous young people in junior hockey, and this has to be so mentally challenging on them this year.”
The OHL had made efforts to hold a shortened season in hub cities, a model used by some divisions in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Western Hockey League.
The league and province had reached an agreement on allowing teams to return to play with details about to be announced, but OHL commissioner David Branch said conditions are not safe.
“We owe it to our players and their families to be definitive,” Branch said in a statement. “We were committed to return and play this season, but our hopes and desires have been dashed by the cruel realities of COVID-19.”
“You can see it on both sides.”
Former Knights goalie Joseph Raaymakers agrees it’s the right decision but he is sympathetic to all the players who share his passion for the sport and won’t be able show off their skills.
“You can see it on both sides, it’s obviously reasonable from a government standpoint,” Raaymakers said, who played for the team from 2017 to 2019.
“But you also feel for the players in the organization. It’s a difficult time right now, but it will be exciting when things get back to normal.”
Raaymakers said it will be frustrating for players who have lost a year of their junior eligibility and he wonders how the NHL will handle this year’s draft.
“Hopefully those guys get enough training with their strength coaches and on the ice at home in preparation for next season, and hopefully next season can start on time.”
Waiting for next year
Nowobranec said he worries about the long-term impact the pandemic will have on junior hockey.
“I do feel for the teams that have lesser attendance than we have. It’s going to be a tough struggle to get back. How many people will have no jobs to be able to afford these season tickets? How many fans will be able to come back into the building?” he said.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Nowobranec kept close ties with the London Knights community, which he said felt like family.
“It’s a hard thing to take, not to have that exposure to people. It will be a fantastic time when we have that opportunity again, but when will it happen – that’s the big question mark.”