When junior hockey leagues halted play in March due to the coronavirus outbreak, many, including North American Hockey League (NAHL) commissioner Mark Frankenfeld, anticipated at some point that the 2019-20 season would resume at some point.
Unfortunately for the junior hockey community, that couldn’t happen due to the pandemic.
With the 2019-20 season in the rearview mirror, the focus for these leagues is how to run the 2020-21 season while adhering to the constantly changing COVID-19 guidelines but still allowing players to participate and develop on the ice.
This Spring, Frankenfeld and the rest of the NAHL began its work on the 2020-21 season. That planning comes as the league tries to play in 16 states.
That means the teams have to comply with a wide variety of restrictions. To try and combat this, Frankenfeld and the team owners have worked to give some autonomy to each division.
“We’re an owner-driven league,” Frankenfeld said. “We’ve had a lot of calls that have been very thoughtful and considerate. We’re looking at coming up with appropriate and safe return to play guidelines. We keep watching and reviewing what’s going on out there.”
On Monday, the league announced Oct. 9 will be the official start of the season. However, not all teams may start on that date depending on the situation. It will be up to the individual divisions to decide whether it’s safe to play or not.
“We’ve scheduled in a way so that the divisions are able to start later if they want,” Frankenfeld said. “Our goal is to play all 60 games. But with all of the different rules and regulations in each state, we can’t just make one general guideline. We have to follow the data from the states and cities.”
Along with the Oct. 9 start date, the league has also pushed back its annual showcase in Blaine, Minnesota, to Dec. 16. The Robertson Cup playoffs have also been pushed back three weeks from their originally planned start.
As of now, the work continues to make sure everything is safe. The league is currently holding combines and has had mostly success pulling off these combines.
The USHL is also holding its combines with success. League commissioner Tom Garrity is overseeing these events while also monitoring the day-to-day changes into the intel on the outbreak.
“Right now, I’m just trying to monitor this on a daily basis and try and stay in front of this,” Garrity said. “There’s a lot of things that go into this.”
Garrity and Frankenfeld have been part of a group of North American hockey commissioners, including NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who have kept in touch during the pandemic to discuss strategies.
“We’ve shared what we’ve learned along the way and they’ve done the same,” Garrity said. “As a league, we’ve worked on tweaking our guidelines. Right now, we’re already on our second or third version.”
Much like Frankenfeld and the NAHL, Garrity and the USHL face the challenge of complying with guidelines which vary by state. And for these leagues, having a bubble like the NHL does, is not possible.
“We have to worry about getting kids into the market and ready for school,” Garrity said. “The best-case scenario is to have a full schedule. But it comes down to safety.”
On August 18, the USHL announced that they would target November 6 for their season's start. Under the plan, teams will play 54 regular season games between November 6, 2020 and April 24, 2021.
Players are scheduled to arrive in market over a four-week period beginning September 14 with preseason games targeted to begin in mid-October. All activities are designed to take place in accordance with local, state and federal guidelines as well as the League’s Return to Play Protocols which are currently being finalized.
Eastern Hockey League Executive Advisor Joe Bertagna is facing a new challenge with COVID-19 despite working as an NCAA hockey commissioner for 38 years.
Now helping lead the EHL, he is attempting try and salvage the 2020-21 season. They have not put out as much information on their return as other leagues. Any information the league has released is tentative.
Bertagna also deals with the ever-changing nature of guidelines and state-to-state differences. With that in mind, the focus is more on return to play guidelines than what the actual schedule is.
“We’re at mercy to local jurisdictions,” Bertagna said. “There will be cutting down on traffic and trying to create opportunities in the league. It’s going forward with a contingency plan.”
While both those working for the league and playing in the league are eager to get back on the ice, it still comes down to safety.
“From a big picture, the leagues are about making the decision best for the players, community and league,” Frankenfeld said. “We’re angling and trapping our way back to the ice and if there are roadblocks we’ll work with it.”
On August 3, the EHL announced that Opening Day for the league is scheduled for September 18.