The clock is ticking on junior hockey’s hiatus as local teams prepare for an Oct. 1 start to the 2021-22 season.
The Provincial Junior Hockey League has been on ice since last March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it recently announced its intention to kick off the new campaign in the fall.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Norwich Merchants’ general manager Andy Riley said. “I think we’ll be ready to go … if the government lets us.
“I was pretty disappointed in how it all went last year. We thought we’d get going by January, and it backfired again. We thought maybe later on, but at the end of the day it was probably the right move (to cancel last season).”
Riley signed several players last year, and that group of eight or nine has re-committed to the team. The majority are new players, including three from the Paris Mounties, who changed leagues.
Ayr moved to the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League, while it’s believed Delhi, which opted out of 2020-21 even if there were games, is going to do the same this season. That leaves the Doherty Division thin as of now.
“I’m a little worried dropping teams like crazy in the division,” Riley said. “There doesn’t seem to be any direction on (potential realignment) just yet.”
Riley expects a split between returnees and new players once the puck drops, with camp likely beginning in September, but he’s waiting for more information before getting too far ahead.
“It’s going to go fast.”
Thamesford Trojans GM Brad Underwood said he’s “optimistic” the league will be able to start Oct. 1.
“It gives us something to plan towards, and I’m excited for players to get back on the ice,” he said. “There are still hurdles before we get there, but fingers crossed.”
Underwood has signed around eight players who stuck around after committing a year ago. He doesn’t expect camp to start until September, or whenever public-health protocols allow.
“We’re still in the process of evaluating what we have and what we need,” he said. “That changes on a day-toy-day basis.
“I’m very encouraged and optimistic of what we’ll be able to put on the ice this year.”
Tavistock Braves general manager Jordan Zehr called the Oct. 1 announcement “a positive step in the right direction.”
Tavistock was one of the teams still in the playoffs when the 2019-20 season was shut down last March, and Zehr expects the team to start skating as a group in mid-August.
“Certainly when you’re talking to players and (parents), it’s nice to have an idea to tell them,” he said. “For the last year and a bit, the answer has been, ‘We don’t really know.’
“We’re excited about our returning core. We have a strong group of overage players and some guys with us the last couple seasons who will take huge steps forward, plus our leadership group is going to be pretty well leaned upon. We’re excited about where we sit, but that being said, we have a couple open spots we’re looking to fill.”