Gilles Courteau, commissioner of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League since 1986, won’t say this has been the most challenging week of his tenure.
Instead, he calls it the most challenging time since March, when the coronavirus hit, eventually cancelling all play across the Canadian Hockey League as well as the Memorial Cup for the first time in 102 years.
“We knew. We have to be ready. We could have positive tests. At one point I told our members ‘We will have positive tests … and we’ll be prepared to react,’ ” Courteau said Friday from the league’s office in Boucherville.
“It’s sad what happened. We never thought we’d have a complete team, a full squad, test positive. But it did happen.”
Courteau, 63, has been in damage-control mode this week after it was revealed at least 18 players and personnel from the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, along with eight from the Sherbrooke Phoenix, tested positive for COVID-19. Both organizations have had their activities suspended indefinitely, those affected required to isolate for 14 days.
The QMJHL’s regular season began last Thursday. It’s probably no coincidence those teams played each other twice over the weekend. And when the Quebec government on Monday suspended team sports in red zone regions that have had the largest outbreaks until at least Oct. 28, the Armada and Quebec Remparts realized they’d be unable to play home games. Drummondville will be affected as of midnight Saturday, with the province expanding its red zone designation to more regions.
Courteau, however, doesn’t regret his decision to start league play. He said five different committees, consisting of more than 50 people, worked on the QMJHL’s return-to-play protocol, which required the approval of public health officials in Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and P.E.I.
Of the league’s 18 teams, 12 are in Quebec with the remainder in Atlantic Canada.
Courteau said never was it decreed every player had to be tested. Instead, players, management and staff all were supplied with an app, to be activated if they developed symptoms. Then they would be tested. Courteau said more than 100 people were tested from mid-August until last weekend; no tests were positive.
While QMJHL players are required to wear visors, protecting their eyes, their mouths and noses are exposed, leading to the potential of transmission. But Courteau maintained public health officials advised the league wearing full face shields wouldn’t necessarily protect the players and weren’t deemed obligatory.
Both the Ontario and Western Hockey Leagues hope to launch their seasons in December. The only reason those leagues are starting after Quebec, Courteau said, is both are comprised of several American teams, bringing border restrictions into play.
On Wednesday, Ontario sport minister Lisa MacLeod said the OHL would only be permitted to resume play if bodychecking and fighting were banned.
Junior Education Minister Isabelle Charest, who’s responsible for sports in the province, challenged the QMJHL to ban fighting. Instead, the league’s board of governors recently approved stiffer punishments, calling for a 10-minute misconduct in addition to five-minute fighting majors.
Courteau said the league is working on an addendum to its return-to-play policy and will meet with public health officials to see what’s required moving forward. That, he said, could include remote learning for all players who attend school or entire teams being quarantined in hotels between games.
Because the QMJHL reduced its schedule to 60 from 68 games, there are open dates for postponed games to be played. But Courteau can’t assure the league won’t face a lockdown.
“We’ll do everything we can to continue to play, making sure we have as safe an environment as possible for the players,” he said. “As a league, I still have faith. We’ll see the evolution of the pandemic.”
The league is seeking $20 million in government assistance to help cover lost revenue. Quebec-based teams have barred spectators, while those in the Maritimes permit between 20 and 25 per cent of the building’s capacity.