Pain of halted hockey seasons in Ottawa extends far beyond Senators

NHL insider Justin Bourne joins Good Show with Ben Ennis (in studio) and J.D. Bunkis (via phone) to discuss why it will be much more challenging and unlikely for the NHL to salvage their season then any other of the major sports.

Teams already eliminated from playoff contention, like the Ottawa Senators, don’t get a lot of sympathy for having their season halted.

The sporting feels, such that they matter in the big picture, are with the contenders who don’t know if they will get a chance to play for a 2020 Stanley Cup trophy or the Masters green jacket.

Ottawa hockey, though, extends far beyond the NHL’s Senators, and includes three outstanding hockey teams either from Ottawa or linked to the Senators (their AHL farm) who had their seasons abruptly stopped last week.

To wit:

• The University of Ottawa Gee-Gees were in Halifax for the national mens’ hockey tournament, and didn’t get to play a single game before the plug was pulled.

• The OHL 67’s had already tied a franchise record with 50 wins under head coach André Tourigny and were a Memorial Cup favourite as the OHL season got postponed.

• The Belleville Senators, directed by head coach Troy Mann, were the surprise team of the AHL despite having the second-youngest roster in the league, and were gearing up for a long playoff run. Until, well, you know.

• If we want to extend down to the next tier of junior, allow a tip of the cap to the CCHL Carleton Place Canadians, coached and managed by Jason Clarke. Carleton Place had a ridiculous regular season record of 49-7-4-2. Countless area minor hockey teams also lost their seasons.

Against the bigger picture of health concerns and growing coronavirus numbers in Canada, sports interruptions fade in significance. But as we search for distractions in self-isolation, it’s worth a pause to consider three major hockey teams that got the rug pulled from beneath them in 2019-20.

Combined, the win-loss-OT-SOL record of the 67’s, B-Sens and Gee-Gees: 105-42-4-1.

A brief snapshot of how things went down with all three, and how they are coping today:

Belleville Senators (AHL)

Head coach: Troy Mann
Record: 38-20-4-1
Top scorer: Josh Norris (56 GP, 31 G, 30 A, 61 P)

Troy Mann has gone from scrambling to fill out a healthy roster to scrambling to find his Turtle Wax. Like so many sport lifers, he has hit the pause button. Netflix is his go-to player now.

“Yesterday I cleaned the garage and the inside of my barbecue,” Mann says from Belleville. “Today I think I’m going to clean the inside of my wife’s car. If it doesn’t rain I’ll do mine. I try to do one or two simple tasks each day to keep busy.”

Most of the B-Sens players had been hanging around Belleville as well, unable to skate or train. With the news that the NHL and AHL are not likely to resume play before mid-May, if at all, pro players have been allowed to go home and will be leaving their hockey cities until further notice.

“Every day there is less and less hope, but we’re just following the AHL guidelines and we’ll see where it goes,” Mann says.

Not a lot was expected of the B-Sens this season. They were frightfully young — only the Ontario Reign had a younger roster. Competing for a playoff spot would have been enough, considering no Belleville/Binghamton Senators team has made the post-season since 2014.

Despite huge roster upheaval due to injuries in Belleville and Ottawa, there was a quality about this group that couldn’t be denied. As the pause button was pushed, the B-Sens were in first place in the AHL North Division off a .643 winning percentage. Their road record of 23-5-3 was insane for a team that leans on 20-22-year-old men.

“I’ve been in the AHL 10 years, six as a head coach, and this is certainly a special group on and off the ice as far as how much they like to be around each other and the amount of winning we’ve been able to do,” Mann says.

Injuries and call-ups forced Mann to deploy four different goaltenders and 16 defencemen. He tries not to dwell on the possibility the season could be done, although the future is bright with so many good young players in the organization, and more coming.

“It would be devastating to get that word the AHL season is cancelled based on the type of year we had and the type of individuals we have,” Mann said.

University of Ottawa Gee-Gees

Head coach: Patrick Grandmaitre
Record: 17-11
Top scorer: Kevin Domingue (28 GP, 18 G, 16 A, 34 P)

The Gee-Gees were agonizingly close to their first U Sports nationals participation since the program was re-launched four years ago. After losing the OUA championship in triple overtime to Guelph the previous weekend, U of O nevertheless had qualified to be one of eight teams vying for a national title. After a couple of practice days in Halifax, and the tournament already two games in, the Gee-Gees were told there would be no more games after the Thursday openers.

“It feels like a month ago now,” says head coach Patrick Grandmaitre, who has been working on getting his student-athletes home to their families now that classes have been moved online.

No more than an hour after the university coaches were called into a meeting to be informed the nationals were over due to coronavirus concerns, Grandmaitre called his players into a conference room at their Halifax hotel.

“In this era of social media, it felt like they already knew from Twitter and I was just confirming something,” Grandmaitre says. “But I needed to tell them it was officially over.”

With 17 of his 20 players graduating, there will be no “wait till next year,” for these Gee-Gees players. The Nationals were over before they started. U of O finished undefeated at 0-0.

“It was very emotional,” Grandmaitre says. “It’s so weird how everything happened. For our season to end without us being able to play a game — there were a lot of tears in that room. Guys not having a chance to play the last game of their university careers. At the same time there was an understanding this was bigger than sport.”

As the head coach and team manager, Grandmaitre didn’t have the luxury of time to dwell on what just happened. Instead of flying home Monday as a group, as planned, he had to get his players home on three separate flights over the next day or two. His mind was racing.

“It was so intense and rich with emotion but at the same time, where do we go from here?”

Some of those flights were so early on Saturday morning, the coaches had to rouse players from their hotel beds after a late night of drowning sorrows and saying goodbye.

And yet, qualifying for Halifax, and being recognized for their accomplishments as a top team mattered in the end. Grandmaitre feels that getting his group together there, even just for a gala and a few practices, was uplifting after a marathon loss to the Gryphons for the Queen’s Cup.

“It put somewhat of a positive spin on things after we lost in triple overtime to Guelph,” he says. “It was a small reward from what was a very bitter end to that Guelph game.”

Ottawa 67’s (OHL)

Head coach: André Tourigny
Record: 50-11-0-1
Top scorer: Marco Rossi (56 GP, 39 G, 81 A, 120 P)

What do all three of these teams have in common? Outstanding coaching jobs by the head man and his staff. André Tourigny, an assistant coach for Canada’s world junior gold-medal team in January, and announced as head coach for the 2021 team, was supposed to be presiding over a team in transition.

Last year was going to be the year for the 67’s, who sailed through the OHL playoffs until running into an experienced Guelph team in the OHL final.

This year has been more of a surprise, but now trends toward heartbreak as COVID-19 escalates with no end in sight.

Mark Goudie is CEO of the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, which owns the 67’s and the CFL’s Redblacks. When the coronavirus hit Ottawa last week, Goudie had already set up a contingency plan and crisis management plan for his staff. He has also arranged to pay all TD Place Arena workers their lost wages, which he expects to total $100,000.

As much as OSEG is going to take a huge revenue hit if the OHL season gets cancelled, it’s the more nuanced things that Goudie is considering today.

He’s thinking about Marco Rossi, the young wizard from Austria, expected to be a top-five NHL draft choice this summer. Rossi, whose point totals read like an expanded season rather than a shortened one, was on the cusp of a plus-minus record (he’s plus-69). And over-age veteran Austen Keating, with 314 career points, was about to crack the top 10 all-time 67’s scoring list.

As a team, the 67’s were poised to set club records each night for the rest of the season.

“We tied last year’s record 50-win season — one more win and all those individual and team records would be in place,” Goudie told Sportsnet. “It’s too bad. Hopefully we can get back and salvage something out of it, the playoffs, but who the hell knows.”

Goudie says the timing of the impasse could have been worse. The Redblacks don’t begin play until the summer, and the new pro basketball team, the CEBL’s Ottawa Blackjacks, are a couple of months away from their first season. OSEG doesn’t own the pro soccer team, Atletico Ottawa, but does provide a venue for it. That team halted a training camp in Spain due to the virus.

“In terms of timing, it wasn’t the worst because we only had the one team playing,” Goudie says. “We could have had a scenario where the 67’s were playing, basketball, soccer and football starting as well. It is probably the quietest time in our schedule.”

And yet that “one team,” the 67’s, had seen a 35-per-cent jump in attendance this season and the hockey club was looking forward to seeing crowds of 8,000-plus for the playoffs.

“That was fantastic last year,” Goudie says.

The real revenue pain will kick in if the Redblacks lose scheduled games. OSEG realizes “north of $1.2 million per game,” according to Goudie.

“That’s when the big bills start mounting,” Goudie says. “If we’re not able to play those (CFL games), that becomes a severe hardship.”

The Redblacks’ first home game is scheduled for June 12 against the Toronto Argos.

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