TORONTO — The province provided the Ontario Hockey League with $2.35 million Wednesday for teams' post-secondary education programs, but more could be coming to help the league resume play during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The $2.35 million was part of $15.3 million in funding from the Ontario government to support sport and recreation organizations and high-performance athletes during the pandemic. Lisa MacLeod, Ontario's Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, unveiled the initiative, adding each of the 17 Ontario-based clubs will receive $138,000 to assist with player scholarship commitments.
The OHL is the only one of Canada's three major-junior hockey leagues not to start its season yet. MacLeod said talks continue between the league and province on return-to-play protocols and she's optimistic an agreement can be reached soon.
"I'm optimistic by the end of this month we'll be able to make an announcement and they (OHL) can get to work on selecting a location or venues in which they will play," MacLeod said. "Once we've got the sign-off and protocols in place, I'll leave the planning on when the season resumes to (OHL commissioner) David Branch and his team … we're all working very had to make this happen.
"We know we've got some really great OHL players that are going to make a real difference in the game of hockey in years to come. But we want to make sure we do that safe so we don't have an impact on their physical health.
The other initiatives in Wednesday's announcement include:
— $3 million in 2020-21 for SPORT4ONTARIO to deliver a pilot program that helps youth and their families regain confidence in sport and recreation activities.
— $3.6 million for 63 recognized provincial sport organizations.
— $6.36 million in 2020-21 for Quest for Gold Canada to support approximately 550 provincial athletes who've reached national competition level, as part of Quest for Gold’s Canada Card program.
Ontario becomes the latest province to announce some level of funding for major-junior hockey during the pandemic.
Saskatchewan has given $3 million combined to its five Western Hockey League teams. Alberta has introduced a program allowing league teams and other sports and arts organizations to apply for 25 per cent of eligible expenses on their two most recent financial statements.
Quebec has given $12 million combined to its 12 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League clubs.
MacLeod said additional provincial financial assistance could be available to the OHL, but couldn't say how much.
"I'm optimistic we can provide them with some level of financial aid," she said. "What that is, I have no idea at this point because we haven't had the return-to-play protocol signed off and we're not looking at the moment on where they might be playing.
"The conversation is ongoing with them and it's an important dialogue that's continuing."
OHL commissioner David Branch said Wednesday's announcement was important to his league.
"It will help address the substantial cost of the scholarship program to OHL teams, who have not been on the ice since March 2020," he said in a statement. "Getting players back on the ice as quickly as possible continues to be our main priority and we will continue to work diligently with the government to ensure a safe return to play this season.
"We look forward to Minister MacLeod's announcement on the matter of returning to play along with details on further financial aid for the league."
One issue that will have to be resolved is the border. The OHL has three American teams — the Erie Otters in Pennsylvania and the Saginaw Spirit and Flint Firebirds in Michigan.
While Canadians continue to be vaccinated, some officials say Ontario has already entered a third wave of the pandemic. But MacLeod doesn't believe that would impact the OHL's potential resumption of play.
"We've been quite successful at the AHL and NHL level preventing the spread of COVID-19," she said. "We want to make sure that once we sign off on (OHL) return to play that the integrity of that bubble will prevent the spread of COVID-19 or any of the variants of concern (and) that work again is ongoing.
"We do have a great deal of concern here but I think if we get to the point where we've got he chief medical officer of health signing off, then we will have an iron-clad bubble that will protect the athletes and allow them to get a season in."
Should the OHL resume play, MacLeod said it would be without fans in the stands.
"That (fans at games) will be, I think, ruled off the table in the immediate term," she said. "We've had conversations with the (Ottawa) Senators and (Toronto Maple) Leafs even this week about what a return would look like … but at this point in time that's not been cleared by the chief medical officer of health."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 17, 2021.