OHL announces plans to start 2020-21 season on Feb. 4

A Saint John Sea Dogs player skates on the ice during practice. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

TORONTO — The Ontario Hockey League hopes to start its next season in February.

The OHL announced Thursday it plans to start the season on Feb. 4. The season is slated to be 40 games, down from the usual 68.

The playoffs will be cut in half, with eight teams instead of the usual 16 qualifying during the COVID-19 pandemic. The first round will be a best-of-five with the next two best-of-seven.

The Memorial Cup national championship tournament is scheduled to start June 17 in Oshawa or Sault Ste. Marie.

One potential issue for the OHL is body contact. Ontario sport minister Lisa MacLeod said earlier this month that the OHL will have to try to remove physical contact, including bodychecking, if it's to have a season.

Another possible concern is cross-border play. Three of the OHL's 20 teams are based in the U.S. — the Flint Firebirds, Erie Otters and Saginaw Spirit.

The league says teams will play primarily against opponents in their geographic region.

``Although we are eager to get back on the ice, the safety and well-being of our players, staff, officials, tremendous fans and communities remains paramount,'' OHL commissioner David Branch said in a statement.

The OHL is the last of Canada's three major junior hockey leagues to announce plans for the season.

The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season started earlier this month, but the schedule has been affected by several COVID-19 outbreaks as well as provincial government restrictions. After play was restricted to Maritimes Division teams the past two weeks, some Quebec teams are scheduled to resume play this weekend.

The Western Hockey League said earlier this month it plans to start its season on Jan. 8.

Like their QMJHL counterparts, all WHL teams are scheduled to play exclusively within their divisions. That means the five American-based teams in the WHL will not have to cross the border.

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