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It's a broken record playing continuously since last March in every facet of life: "Things are going to look different this year."
For hockey fans, schedules have not just been different but leagues that are usually in step with each other are anything but.
No league has been immune to the COVID-19 pandemic, evidenced by the sport's top flight — the Dallas Stars had to reschedule their opening four games due to a virus outbreak.
The NHL's three premier producers of junior talent in the Canadian Hockey League — the Western league, Ontario league and Quebec major-junior league — have all handled things differently. But only the Q has hit the ice thus far in the 2020-21 season.
On Jan. 9, the WHL announced its plans for a 24-game schedule this winter. Official documentation from the league contained no other information, although multiple media outlets have hinted at major changes for a season that could start in late February or early March.
There is the possibility of hub cities in the WHL or the idea that while teams wouldn't skate in bubbles, they could share home arenas. There is also speculation that the circuit's five American clubs could relocate to Canada for the season.
Saskatchewan's WHL clubs have won at least one battle despite not playing a game thus far — that provincial government has given $600,000 to each of the five teams along with a $1-million payment to the 12-team Saskatchewan Junior A Hockey League.
WHL teams located in British Columbia have reached out to their government for funding. The matter is considered so dire that the five major junior organizations in B.C. have partnered with the 17-team British Columbia Hockey League in its request, despite the leagues having a rivalry of sorts when battling for top talent.
No official announcement has been made for funding for OHL teams and even less information is available about a potential 2021 campaign.
On Dec. 23, the league announced the season was pushing back its planned start date of Feb. 4.
Meanwhile in the QMJHL, it remains a tale of two worlds between the Maritimes and Quebec. Despite a growing number of regions being given a restricted "red" distinction, the 12 Quebec clubs have the green light to proceed with action on Friday in four "bubble" cities — Chicoutimi, Drummondville, Rimouski and Shawinigan.
For the Maritime teams, the collapse of the Atlantic bubble makes things more challenging. The QMJHL website shows all six squads in the division on the schedule for Friday but it appears unlikely there will be games for this group until February.
Despite the uncertainty, the moving and shaking continue on the trade front with a number of general managers declaring intentions to push for a championship.
Val-d'Or, already having tabbed star forward Nathan Légaré, ponied up to obtain world junior silver medallist winning defenceman Jordan Spence from Moncton. The cost was first- and fourth-round picks, and highly touted netminder Vincent Fillion, the sixth pick in the 2020 QMJHL draft.
Blainville-Boisbriand's veteran-laden roster is now more impressive with the addition of 19-year-old defenceman Christopher Merisier-Ortiz from Baie-Comeau. The undrafted (NHL) star defenceman could return next season as well, so it's less surprising the cost was two first-round picks along with a second-round choice.
Shawinigan possesses a core that should be a big contender in 2022 but they also want to win now. The Cataractes landed first-team all-star, overage defenceman Justin Bergeron from Rimouski in a deal that saw the Océanic collect first- and third-round draft picks.
Charlottetown also appears primed for a two-year run after a big deal on Sunday with the Sherbrooke Phoenix that saw the Isles land former first-round pick Patrick Guay. The 18-year-old forward will add scoring punch and the price — two first-round picks and promising forward Justin Gill. But the Isles, already leading the Maritime Division, will return a majority of their key pieces in 2021-22.
Other significant moves have seen Victoriaville land Rouyn-Noranda defenceman Alexis Arsenault, Bathurst nab Sherbrooke blue-liner Jaxon Bellamy and Saint John forward Alex Drover heads to Rimouski.
With the trade period closing on Monday, more moves will likely come down the pipe. And there have been additional key pieces added as imports continue to filter into the Q with Bathurst gaining access to star Czech goaltender Jan Bendar while new Moncton forward Max Barbashev (younger brother of St. Louis forward Ivan) has big shoes to fill.
Regardless of whether the teams hit the ice as scheduled, the QMJHL certainly continues to give its fans something to talk about.
Patrick McNeil is the play-by-play announcer with the Cape Breton Eagles.