The COVID-19 virus hasn’t just brought sports to a grinding halt but it has also shown that not all traditions are etched in stone. The Masters can be bumped to the fall, Tokyo will host the Summer Olympics in the very un-Olympic year of 2021 and MLB’s Opening Day might fall around the time of the All-Star break.
One event on the sports calendar is not changing course, however: The Memorial Cup will be hosted by the OHL next spring as previously scheduled. The two bidders competing for the honour are Oshawa and Sault Ste. Marie. The Kelowna Rockets, scheduled to be the tournament hosts this year, will have to wait until the WHL gets another turn in 2023. There will be no special accommodation for the Rockets in the wake of the cancellation of the balance of the major-junior season.
“The OHL was a long way down the selection process,” WHL commissioner Ron Robison says. “It was only fair to let the teams that bid [for 2021] to not ask them to change their plans. It’s unfortunate but we don’t see any reason to change the rotation. I expect to see the rotation to stay the same moving forward.”
If the Memorial Cup resembles anything in this shattered sports year, it would be March Madness: one shining moment and then the rest of your lives. Next year’s team is just another team. A team’s magical run winds up… some strange asterisk or footnote. The University of Dayton Flyers, meet the Kelowna Rockets.
Maybe a couple of 16-year-olds on this season’s Kelowna team will still be Rockets if the franchise secures the bid again. The 17- and 18-year-olds can hold out hope of making Memorial Cups that will play out in yet to be determined points east. The older kids and the over-agers will only wonder what might have been.
“It’s really a shame, but the decision was completely beyond our control,” Robison says. “It’s so disappointing for the Rockets, the teams that would have been competing for the right to play in the tournament, their parents, the organizers, all the volunteers who signed on to work behind the scenes … once-in a lifetime and it was taken away for them.”
Officials in the WHL were almost certainly bracing for the worst first, before those in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes.
“We were monitoring it very closely, day by day, because Washington was the first state where we could see rapid spread,” Robison says. “The major concern was the Seattle area. Because the city was dealing with the onset of the virus and numbers were showing that we were going to have a challenge in that market. From there it stretched to Washington State and Oregon and then B.C.”
In fact, the virus had a brush with the Seattle Thunderbirds.
“[The Thunderbirds] were the first to look for symptoms, to do testing,’ Robison says. “There were symptoms developed by individuals associated with the players and the staff. Players were developing symptoms. There were immediate concerns.”
Fortunately, nothing went beyond showing early symptoms and no players, staff or individuals associated with the team have contracted the COVID-19. Once the players and the rest of the organization were determined to be asymptomatic, everyone packed up and went home. And so it would go across the WHL and the rest of the CHL.
If officials with teams in the Eastern Division of the the WHL thought the virus would blow over they were disabused of it pretty quickly.
“[In early March] the number of cases in Saskatchewan and Manitoba were quite low,” Robison says. “Medical experts we were in discussion with indicated that it was just a matter of time before the virus spread and that all communities [in the WHL] would be affected.”
Robison says that, however disappointing it might be for the Rockets and the rest of the WHL, the officials felt it best not to hold on to false hope or to put off the inevitable to a later date.
“Our first concern is the health of the players and not exposing them to any risk,” he says. “We are entrusted by parents for the well-being of their sons. Parents were relieved by our decisions [to suspend and cancel] the season.”