Chandler Romeo is convinced he’s a different hockey player than he was 12 months ago. He just wishes he’d had the chance to prove it.
Romeo was one of the many young hockey players who, after riding a wave of highs and lows all year, were crushed by news earlier this week that the Ontario Hockey League was officially cancelling its season thanks to the ongoing crises created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A couple of weeks ago, we received permission from the chief medical officer and the premier that we could return and play,” league commissioner David Branch said on a video conference call with reporters on Tuesday. “On the eve of that announcement, the COVID-19 conditions dramatically worsened.
“Since then, we've had an extended stay-at-home order, the increasing severity of the variants ... we just couldn't safely return to play this season.”
That means, unlike its major junior cousins the Western League and the Quebec League, the OHL will not contest a single game this year. Every OHLer Sportsnet spoke with said some variation of, “It sucks, but I understand.” Still, there’s no mistaking the deflated souls, whether talking to NHL Draft hopefuls or over-agers pining for one last year to prove themselves. The OHL had targeted several different start dates throughout the year, only to push them back each time. The cycle of getting psyched for a return, then hearing it was a no-go after all really took a toll.
“I don’t put any blame on the league; I know they tried their hardest for us to play,” Romeo said. “But it’s a real mental game.”
Romeo is in the group of players who were set to enter their first year of NHL Draft eligibility. Accepted wisdom surrounding the 2021 Draft in July is that the kids already identified as high-end talents will be selected despite how this bizarre year played out. However, there’s now all kinds of uncertainty around players like Romeo, who hoped to join the long list of teenagers from the past who dramatically improved — or in some cases, completely created — their draft stock with one really strong campaign.
A year ago, Romeo was a Hamilton Bulldogs draft pick turning heads while playing Jr. B in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League and some Jr. A in Ontario Junior Hockey League. The big defenceman figured to get a great opportunity to demonstrate what he can do on the Bulldogs blue line this past year, especially with a frame that added 25lbs and an inch of height since he took his skates off last March.
“I’ve been thinking about this year for so long,” says Romeo, who now clocks in at six-foot-five and 205 lbs. “It was a huge year for me and I was so excited to break into the league [with] an opportunity to play and impress scouts. And then it just never happened.”
The void left players scrambling to do what they could to find ice. Based in Cambridge, Ont., Romeo would suit up in different rinks around Southern Ontario, and — depending on what the regulations of the moment were — he’d often be out there with other Bulldogs and guys who played for different OHL clubs. He tried playing Jr. A hockey in the Ottawa area in the spring, but COVID crackdowns kicked in shortly after he arrived and he was soon headed home. A few players, like Cameron Supryka of the Sarnia Sting and Francesco Arcuri of the Kingston Frontenacs, found their way to Europe.
Supryka, an undrafted defenceman hoping to make a big leap in his third OHL season, said he started training for this year immediately after receiving word the 2019-20 campaign was being gassed. He was bent on arriving at a late-summer training camp in better shape than anybody who took even a little time off. The decision to go to Austria in January was more or less rooted in the same logic; play there for a couple of months and hit the ground running when the OHL returns in the spring. The 19-year-old was always trying to get ahead of a game that never arrived.
“We were hearing so many things,” says Supryka, who played on the same pro Austrian club as Arcuri, Sarnia teammate Brayden Guy and Windsor Spitfire Curtis Douglas. “Curtis would say he heard something from one guy on his team and then [Guy and I] would hear something from a guy on our team. I think the biggest roller-coaster of emotion was that: We were hearing that we were going to play from certain people and then other people were saying we weren’t playing.
“We’re in another country across the world and we were just like, I guess it is what it is, we’ll just enjoy our time here and try and get ready for the season. If we play, we play, if not, then we don’t.”
Arcuri — a forward in his first year of NHL Draft eligibility — stayed in constant contact with his OHL coach, Paul McFarland, while in Austria. McFarland, who served as a Toronto Maple Leafs assistant in 2019-20, would wake up at the crack of dawn in Canada to connect with Arcuri via FaceTime or Zoom to go over finer points of the latter’s game. Arcuri showed his scoring chops with 15 points in 18 outings with Steel Wings Linz, but a full — or even half — OHL year would have given him an opportunity to raise his profile much more. “It was my chance to shoot up the leaderboard in the rankings, but it didn’t work out like that,” he says, noting he did add the ability to do laundry to his game after living on his own in Austria. “My goals stay the same. Scouts know what happened and I’ve been in contact with them a lot and having Zoom calls.”
Ryan Del Monte, a centre who was entering his draft-eligible season with the Barrie Colts, made the call early on to go to Germany. His dad played pro in that country and Del Monte holds a German passport thanks to being born there in 2003. That afforded him the option to play for the German entry at the World Under-18 Championship that starts on Monday in Texas. The issue was, at the time he would have had to commit to the Germans, he was still under the impression there would be an OHL season of some kind. While the U-18s is a great showcase, Del Monte would only get about a half-dozen games to shine there versus four times that many outings in the theoretical OHL season everyone — in February and March — still thought was going to happen.
“I would have missed a large chunk of [OHL] games if I went to the U-18 camp, so I decided [I would] come back and hopefully there would be 24 games in the ‘O’ to show what I’ve got,” Del Monte says. “Now I missed the U-18s and I’m stuck at home with no OHL season.”
Of course, guys in the older age bracket are pretty bummed, too. Kurtis Henry is a do-whatever-it-takes defenceman who was entering his final year with the Erie Otters as an over-ager. This was his final chance to win a pro contract or at least earn some invites to camps next September. “I was just hoping to build off my [previous OHL] career and hopefully get looks to go play professionally somewhere,” he says. “It’s pretty heartbreaking for all the OA’s.”
Henry, who lives in Niagara Falls, said about the only thing that made him feel better this year was getting in more pond hockey than he could ever recall thanks to a properly cold winter. Still, even light social media scrolling often triggered frustration.
“Seeing one of your friends you used to play with post a picture of them playing from the night before, seeing clubs post that they won the night before,” he says. “It sucks when other clubs are playing and you’re just stuck at home not being able to play.”