CHL president on Memorial Cup’s fate: ‘Some things are bigger than hockey’

No team will see its name etched on a century-old athletic prize this spring because of COVID-19.

Maybe other leagues can hold out hope of salvaging seasons, maybe even the Tokyo Olympics can be staged or rescheduled at this point, but for the Canadian Hockey League it was clear that there was no way of saving this year’s major-junior playoff and the Memorial Cup in Kelowna.

The CHL’s president, Dan MacKenzie, said the cancellation of the balance of the season and the national championship tournament was simply a case of exhausting all contingencies.

“We made the decision to pause the season on March 12,” MacKenzie said Monday night. “Since then we were in constant communication with the leagues [the Quebec Hockey Major Junior Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League and the Western Hockey League, the Memorial Cup hosts]. The commissioners of the three leagues continued to monitor the situation on the ground with the teams.”

The decision to suspend the season on March 12 wasn’t a particularly hard one. The CHL was another domino falling when it became clear that the mortal toll of the coronavirus was going to grind matters more important than sports to a halt.

In fact, the CHL was hit more immediately by the coronavirus threat than other sports leagues because of the WHL franchises in the Pacific Northwest, including the Seattle Thunderbirds, who play out of an arena in Kent, Washington — just a 20-minute drive from the Life Care Center in Kirkland, the site of the first North American outbreak of COVID-19. The Portland Winter Hawks played the Thunderbirds in Kent in the last week of February.

“The health and welfare of our players and the billets and everyone involved in the organizations are paramount for us,” Mackenzie said. “Some things are bigger than hockey. There was real suffering going on around the world and closer to home.”

The fate of the Memorial Cup though was far from easy.

For 10 days, MacKenzie, the commissioners and organizers in Kelowna discussed ways that they might reboot the event and offer teams a chance to vie for a national championship. “We looked at a variety of options,” MacKenzie said. “How late we can move it back from the schedule in Kelowna, then moving the event from Kelowna. We looked at other places. Over the last 48 hours we got to the point where we had run out of choices.”

One seeming possibility was off the boards from the drop: playing the tournament in an empty arena, which was a possibility floated in NBA circles for a time before the suspension of its season. “It becomes very difficult to consider those types of models in terms of the financial realities [of the CHL],” said MacKenzie, who came to the CHL this season from an executive post with the NBA. “The scope of the NBA’s media deals are significantly different than ours. The financial realities of playing without fans was just something we couldn’t put on the table.”

Every news cycle saw one contingency or another struck from the list. The closure of the Canada-U.S. border only made the unfeasible impossible.

“With teams on both sides of the border, with players from both sides, it was hard to see any way to move forward,” MacKenzie says. “The players remained with their teams for a few days, not as much as a week probably, before going home. At the best of times, when you add an international border it’s a layer of complexity that’s unique to our league. With players going home [to the U.S.] and import players going to home to Europe, it was hard to see any way to [restart] the season.”

Ultimately, though, it came down to the B.C. provincial government. “When the provincial health monitor [in B.C.] issued the order to restrict public gatherings to under 50 people, an order in effect until the end of May, that was really the moment that forced us rethink our position. That was going to directly affect the Memorial Cup. It forced us to begin to reassess what we could potentially do. We got to a point over the last 48 hours where we had no choice, that it was pretty obvious [we were] going to have to cancel.”

MacKenzie says next year’s Memorial Cup is “in a state of flux.” The OHL is scheduled to be the tournament host, but no team has been named host at this point. “What we do with Kelowna [hosting a Memorial Cup] is a matter for another day.”

Likewise, the matter of league championships is “something for down the line,” the president said. So too a time frame for the start of next season.