Matthew Welsh has played his final game for the Charlottetown Islanders.
The Canadian Hockey League’s three member leagues (Quebec, Ontario and Western) cancelled their playoffs and the Memorial Cup Monday night due to the coronavirus (COVID-19 strain).
“It definitely stung,” Welsh said Tuesday morning. “My stomach kind of dropped when I heard the news.”
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) cancelled the remaining games of the regular season a week ago.
Welsh, the first five-year member of the franchise since Ben Duffy completed his career in the final year of the P.E.I. Rocket in 2013, said he tried to remain optimistic the post-season would go ahead and the Islanders would have the chance to go on a deep playoff run.
“We never really got that opportunity,” said the 20-year-old goalie from Halifax. “It’s definitely not the way you picture finishing your junior hockey career, but obviously, there’s the bigger picture and more important things in the world going on right now.”
Islanders head coach and general manager Jim Hulton said he felt for all his players, particularly the overage players (Welsh, captain Brendon Clavelle and Ethan Crossman) and guys like Nikita Alexandrov, who is expected to turn pro next season.
“You can’t help but think of those guys,” he said. “It's not the way you want to see Matt Welsh end his days in an Islander uniform … but there’s going to be stories like these in every junior city in the country…
“We’re dealing with an unprecedented situation in our society, not just hockey.”
The Islanders were quietly looking forward to playing the Rimouski Oceanic in the first round of the playoffs. It would have been a chance to compete against the top prospect in this year’s NHL draft, Alexis Lafrenière, and try to go on another magical playoff run.
“Welshy himself was leading the charge. When you start to see him get excited about a challenge, you can’t help but be excited to tag along for the ride,” Hulton said. “That part stings, not being able to watch that ride.”
Welsh said he felt he and his teammates were playing their best hockey of the season. They had come together and were finding their identity.
“I think we would have given any team in the league a lot of trouble in the playoffs,” he said.
Welsh, like most players, will come to terms with the premature end of the season in the days and weeks ahead.
“First, I really just need to kind of let it sink in that junior hockey is over. It’s all happened so fast right now,” he said. “It feels like yesterday I was going to my first training camp, and just like that the season is cancelled.”
Hulton said he and his staff will turn their attention to the midget draft.
Commissioner Gilles Courteau said during a conference call on Tuesday morning a date hasn’t been finalized. The draft was supposed to happen June 6 in Sherbrooke, Que., but the league announced earlier this month it would happen online for the first time since it began in 1973.
Hulton said Monday night he was thinking about teams around the league that traded away future assets in attempt to go on a deep playoff run.
“As much as this disappoints us all, I can’t even imagine if you’re across the bridge in Moncton or in Chicoutimi or Sherbrooke,” he said. “These chances don't come along very often.”
Courteau said he wasn’t prepared to say if teams would receive some form of compensation.
“If there is a proposal, we’ll listen to that, but at this time it’s not a priority for us right now,” he said.
He said the most important thing for the league is the safety of its players and staff.
Courteau said the league will be looking to see if its teams are eligible for financial assistance.
“That's going to be very important for us, to look at all of the government programs that they’ll put in place to compensate different businesses,” he said. “We’ll see if we can submit a request.”
Welsh said he’s grateful for everything the franchise, staff members and teammates have done for him during his career and was thankful he got to speak directly to the fans on Feb. 28, after setting the league record for most minutes played by a goalie.
“I’m so grateful for everything they've done for me over the last five years and how they welcomed me into Charlottetown,” Welsh said Tuesday. “The last five years has just been a true blessing to me, and I wouldn’t have wanted to spend it anywhere else in the CHL.”