Dan MacKenzie is hopeful.
The president of the Canadian Hockey League is trying to keep a positive outlook with an eye to the start of the 2020-21 regular season, but knows that answers remain out of his grasp and will for a while.
With the COVID-19 pandemic causing upheaval around the globe, professional and amateur sports organizations are in the midst of trying to determine the ways in which they will be able to eventually return to play.
The Canadian Hockey League, which includes a total of 60 teams in the Ontario Hockey League, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the Western Hockey League, came under MacKenzie’s guidance last September when he was hired as the CHL’s first full-time president.
Needless to say, what’s happening now wasn’t something that MacKenzie could foresee when he took the job.
“Our plan is to start as we normally do, to drop the puck in September,” MacKenzie said during a phone interview Wednesday from his home in Guelph. “But there is so much that can change, so we have to be careful that we’re not completely locked in.
“Ultimately, much of the decision-making we are going to have is going to be driven by public-health authorities. We have been in constant contact with public health and we’re going to be taking our direction in terms of when it’s safe to come back.
“That’s going to be driven by making sure the environment for our teams and our players and our fans is going to be safe.”
The CHL’s leagues cancelled their seasons and playoffs, which was followed by the cancellation of the Memorial Cup tournament, in March, and in the ensuing weeks, MacKenzie has been in close contact (remotely, of course) with OHL commissioner David Branch, WHL commissioner Ron Robison and QMJHL commissioner Gilles Courteau.
Unlike, for example, the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association, which are trying to come up with ways to finish their 2019-20 seasons, the CHL can peer a little further ahead.
Branch, who was president of the CHL from 1996 until MacKenzie took over, sees time as an advantage for the respective junior hockey leagues.
“I would say yes,” Branch said. “The other thing in our favour is that by having to cancel the balance of our regular season, cancel our playoffs, cancel our Memorial Cup, it has put us in a position when working with our owners that they have a deeper appreciation and understanding of the changing world.
“Working with our teams and owners, the whole theme that we are in this together rings very true.”
For MacKenzie, who has an extensive background in sports administration and marketing and most recently was the managing director of NBA Canada, communication with the various pro sports leagues is vital, even if concrete answers are elusive.
“There are some nuances and financial realities that are different, but the sports community in Canada is fairly small,” MacKenzie said. “It’s not just the NHL — I talk to my former colleagues in the NBA fairly regularly and whether it be the CFL or Major League Baseball, the sports community in Canada is fairly small. There’s a lot of sharing of information, a lot of support for each other.”
One conundrum for junior hockey, not unlike their pro sports cousins, is the idea of playing without fans in seats.
“We are gate-driven, without question,” Branch said. “We have not broached that with our owners yet. At the right time, if there is that need, we have to address it. There are a lot of things that have come at us and we have to be prepared for.”
The issue is a difficult one, but MacKenzie remains optimistic.
“You have to be,” MacKenzie said. “It doesn’t do anyone any good to think too far out. We’re working through right now plans to start in September, but as we go forward and as circumstances change and as more information becomes available, we will adjust. When it’s safe to return, we are going to be ready.”