The Ontario Hockey League intends to make its return on Feb. 4, but how that return will look in practice may need to be different from what fans and players are accustomed to.
On Friday, shortly after the Ontario provincial government reaffirmed its stance that bodychecking and deliberate physical contact would not take place during sports amid the COVID-19 pandemic, OHL commissioner David Branch said the league will follow the results of scientific studies in crafting its return-to-play plan, but did not align his position fully with the province's mandate.
"If there's studies that really, clearly state that body contact is a contributor to the spread of the virus, then obviously we'll have to look at it," Branch said during an appearance on Sportsnet 590 THE FAN's Writers Bloc. "But we've not looked at it yet."
Lisa MacLeod, Ontario's minister of sport, made clear in her Friday announcement solidifying the bodychecking ban, and in subsequent follow-up Tweets on the topic, that the mandate was an important part of playing sport during the COVID-19 era -- and was not negotiable.
"Not just in the OHL, not just in hockey in general, but in all sports," MacLeod said during a speech delivered to the Empire Club of Canada. "We're in a very serious game right now and the reality is we have to take those public health precautions."
According to Ontario's "Framework For Reopening Our Province Stage 3," a publicly available document released by the province that outlines best-practices for individuals and organizations during this stage of Ontario's pandemic response, "prolonged or deliberate contact while playing sports" is not permitted.
"Our public health officials have been clear," MacLeod wrote on Twitter. "Prolonged or deliberate contact while playing sports is not permitted. We will continue to work with [the OHL] on a safe return to play."
The document goes on to say that in team sports where body contact between players is an integral component of the sport, or commonly occurs while engaged in the sport, those sports will not be permitted unless the way they're played can be modified to prevent prolonged or deliberate physical contact.
"I suspect [the OHL] will have to modify their play until there is a vaccine or at the very least public health clearance that we have contained the spread of COVID-19," MacLeod said on Friday.
In the summer, Ontario hosted the NHL's Stanley Cup Playoffs, using Toronto as one of its hub cities, and did not require rule changes that would prevent prolonged or deliberate physical contact. The success of the NHL's model -- a sequestered bubble to limit exposure and remove travel risks, rigorous testing and contact tracing -- would be challenging, if not impossible, for a league like the OHL to afford.
Ontario's confirmation that bodychecking in the OHL would be subject to its reopening mandates comes as daily, reported COVID-19 cases hover near all-time highs.
Over the past seven days, the province has seen a daily average of nearly 900 new cases, according to publicly available tracking data.
"This isn’t politics and hockey," MacLeod tweeted. "It is a global pandemic and we are guided by healthcare policy to mitigate against the spread of a deadly virus."
It is not clear at this time how the policy banning "prolonged or deliberate physical contact" would impact other, non-bodychecking elements of hockey games such as battles for the puck along the boards.
Earlier this month, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League resumed play without any modifications to its rules. Its schedule has been disrupted by several COVID-19 outbreaks among teams, as well as provincial restrictions on travel.
The challenge the league experienced, in part, helped solidify Ontario's decision that bodychecking cannot take place, MacLeod said. According to Branch, that policy decision has not factored into the OHL's return-to-play planning to this point.
"We haven't even contemplated that, quite frankly," Branch said. "At the end of the day, so much of what we're attempting to do is provide the opportunity for our players to get back on the ice. We have to take them into consideration here and what's best for their development, their ongoing development."