Ontario's minister of sport says it would be "irresponsible" to approve a return to play for the Ontario Hockey League right now.
Sports Minister Lisa MacLeod spoke on Thursday and said that the province was days away from approving the OHL's plan to return to play in late March when the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic began in earnest in Ontario.
She said that although she had been hopeful there would be an OHL season in 2021, there was no way to justify the league returning given how quickly variants of concern can spread.
"We're starting to see some outbreaks in other leagues, outbreaks even in the NHL, and so we just really need to be very mindful of these young athletes and their long-term health," said MacLeod.
The OHL is the only major junior league under the Canadian Hockey League umbrella not to begin a 2020-21 season. The Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League have both played modified schedules this year.
The OHL said in a statement Thursday that a return-to-play was given conditional approval, but "the recent increase in COVID-19 cases across the province, paired with the latest reinstatement of a stay-at-home order, have put increased pressure on these plans."
The league said it would provide a further update in the coming days.
The CHL cancelled the Memorial Cup, Canada's major junior championship, on Tuesday. It had been scheduled to be held in either Oshawa, Ont., or Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
Ontario reported a record-high 4,736 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and 29 more deaths linked to the virus.
The ministry of health said there are 1,932 people hospitalized in Ontario with the novel coronavirus, with 659 patients in intensive care and 419 on a ventilator.
MacLeod said that just as the province and OHL were coming to terms on how to make a season work, "the ground shifted."
On April 7, Premier Doug Ford announced a stay-at-home order to try and slow the spread of the virus.
"We're trying our level best to find a solution so (the players) will be able to put in some time," said MacLeod. "My team is working with the OHL right now on what that might look like and when that might look like."
Any resumption of play would have to be approved by Dr. David Williams, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, said MacLeod.
"That's not my decision or Doug Ford's decision or the cabinet's decision," said MacLeod. "It's a decision we take together with the chief medical officer of health.
"What format this may take is still under discussion. The process by which that would happen would be working with the OHL, my team, as well as the ministry of health."