Q&A: CHL President Dan MacKenzie on what’s next for major junior hockey

CHL President Dan MacKenzie (right) poses with Rimouski's Alexis Lafreniere at the CHL Top Prospects Game. (Brandon Taylor/CHL Images)

In July of 2019, the CHL hired Dan MacKenzie to be the league’s first full-time president. Now, less than a year later, he’s had to oversee a cancelled season due to a worldwide pandemic and faces serious questions about what will come next for the OHL, WHL and QMJHL.

MacKenzie talked with Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino and discussed many different topics and hard questions the league is working on answering.

SN: What does the CHL look like in 2020-21?

Dan MacKenzie: It has been two months since the declaration of the global pandemic and the announcement that our regional leagues had paused and subsequently cancelled their seasons. Since then we have continued to closely monitor the latest information from government and public health agencies, with new information coming in almost daily. While these continue to be uncertain times, we are planning right now to drop the puck in September. Having said that, it’s important that we continue to follow direction from the experts who will determine when it’s safe not only for sports, but for society to return to a normal way of life. When that time comes we’ll be ready.

SN: How often are you in contact with the other leagues (NHL, AHL, ECHL) in regards to measures that will be required for players and fans when play resumes?

DM: The CHL, like all sports leagues, have been taking direction from government officials and healthcare professionals. This process began before the cancellation of our season and will continue before we return to play. We are however in contact with other leagues on best practices in a variety of areas whether it be return to play protocols, marketing, ticketing and other business-related issues. In fact, the concept of idea sharing, which is done very well within each of our three regional leagues, is something we’re hoping to expand across the CHL by providing more access to best practice resources and facilitate opportunities for communication between teams that maybe play in different leagues but have similar sized markets or challenges to overcome. There is a real community aspect among sports business personnel that makes it a great industry to work in where although you compete with each other, you also try to help each other too.

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SN: Can the CHL afford to play games without fans for all or part of next season?

DM: We normally would not contemplate playing games without fans in our buildings as it would make the economics very hard for our teams. Having said that, these are extraordinary times and we are going to explore all options and will re-examine whether playing with a limited number of fans is feasible.

SN: Is a shortened or condensed schedule being considered in any or all of the three leagues?

DM: At this time our main focus is on preparing to start in September with a full schedule. As we continue to monitor the situation and as new information unfolds over the coming weeks and months we will react accordingly and adapt towards what is feasible. The most important factor for us is going to be the health and safety of our players, fans and team personnel.

SN: What is Hockey Canada’s role in the CHL returning to play?

DM: Hockey Canada are important partners when it comes to returning to the ice and we are in weekly communication with them. There are a myriad of topics related to coming back to play that we need to address with them and those discussions have begun with their senior leadership, the commissioners and myself.

SN: Is there any date/time where you would like to see the NHL Draft take place?

DM: The NHL Draft is such a special event for the players as well as for our teams and the league. Whenever they decide to move forward we’ll all be excited to celebrate our players taking the next step in their hockey careers.

Sam Cosentino shares his thoughts on the 2020 NHL Draft prospects
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SN: What type of opportunities might present themselves when play resumes?

DM: Sports are such an important part of everyday life for people around the world and in CHL communities that’s no different. Returning to play gives us an opportunity to reconnect with our fans and to re-establish a sense of community that at times throughout this pandemic has been missing. I think a key component of that and where CHL teams can help make a difference is by providing an opportunity for front-line workers to be recognized in their communities and where fans can show their appreciation for those who stepped up during COVID-19.

SN: How has the CHL learned from this pandemic in terms of using anything but hockey to engage fans?

DM: Adapting to a new way of life has been challenging for everyone. Technology and social media have been important tools for us to stay connected with our fans and has allowed us to share some incredible stories in our communities and showcase our players in environments away from the rink, which is important to keep our fans engaged.

SN: Do you see potential in having the hockey spotlight on your leagues in a situation where the gap between the current NHL season ends and the start of the 2020-21 season?

DM: As I’ve outlined here already, there are so many unknowns right now for us to be considering which is making decision-making very difficult. Whenever the time is right for sports to return will be exciting for everyone, and our hope is for the opportunity to be part of that and make the most of it under any circumstance.

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SN: Is centralization a consideration or is it cost prohibitive?

DM: Our focus remains on returning to play when it is safe to do so with games played in our buildings and with fans in attendance.

SN: When’s the latest the Memorial Cup can be played and what kind of social distance measures are you asking the hosts to consider?

DM: The CHL is currently exploring various scenarios for when the Memorial Cup could be played and are working with our potential hosts to determine that feasibility. If we are talking about next Spring, then hopefully social distancing won’t be necessary.

SN: What was the rationale not to go back to Kelowna for next year’s Cup and instead get back into the regular rotation?

DM: The Memorial Cup schedule follows a rotation across the three leagues which in 2021 will be in the OHL. The decision to maintain the rotation was made out of consideration for teams who have been building towards future hosting opportunities. The organizing group in Kelowna understood the rationale and was supportive of that approach.

SN: Would next year be the year to introduce a new format for the Cup, and if so, can you give us any hints as to what you’re considering?

DM: The Memorial Cup is one of the most prestigious trophies in all of sport with over 100 years of history. There is no timeline in place to introduce any specific changes to the format, however we are challenging ourselves to explore ways to enhance the event. Having said that, with so much happening right now given the pandemic, I am not sure 2021 will be the year to make significant change.

SN: When can we expect an announcement on awarding the 2021 Memorial Cup, and what’s a drop dead date to do so, in order to give the host city enough time to organize the event?

DM: The selection process for the 2021 Memorial Cup is being administered by the OHL. Formal bid presentations scheduled to take place before a selection committee in April were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the OHL will be rescheduling those presentations to take place at a suitable time.

SN: Is there a possibility another OHL city joins Oshawa and Sault Ste. Marie in trying to host for 2021?

DM: The Oshawa Generals and the Soo Greyhounds both submitted their intent to bid to host the 2021 Memorial Cup prior to the application deadline back in February and remain the two clubs that will be making formal bid presentations before the selection committee.


SN: Can the league get by without any of its three major events (CIBC Canada-Russia, Kubota Top Prospects, Memorial Cup presented by Kia)?

DM: Cancelling the 2020 Memorial Cup, in addition to our remaining regular season games and playoffs, was extremely disappointing. All three national events are important components of our season, and most importantly for the player experience. Whether it’s competing for a spot on Canada’s National Junior Team at the CIBC Canada-Russia Series, showcasing abilities prior to the NHL Draft at the Kubota CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, or pursuing a national championship at the Memorial Cup Presented by Kia. Our goal is to provide these opportunities for our players and to give our fans and partners something special outside of regular season play.

SN: In terms of scheduling these events for the 2020-21 season, we’ve heard talk about the Memorial Cup having flexible dates. Do the other two big events have date flexibility?

DM: The CIBC Canada-Russia Series is played in November in advance of Canada’s National Junior Team Selection Camp and is scheduled in partnership with Hockey Canada. The Kubota CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game is typically played in January and is scheduled in partnership with the NHL. As we finalize our 2020-21 season and schedule we’ll work with our partners to determine if any changes are needed.

SN: If the Russians aren’t an option to compete in the CIBC, what other plans do you have in filling that void?

DM: At this time we are moving forward with plans for the event to include the Russian Federation. If there becomes a time when those plans are no longer feasible we will work with Hockey Canada to explore alternative options, and of course determine what is practical for our league based on where our season and schedule stand at that time.

SN: Can you announce host cities for CIBC and Kubota?

DM: Host cities and schedules for the 2020 CIBC Canada-Russia Series and 2021 Kubota CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game will be announced at a later date in concert with regular season schedules across the three regional leagues.

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