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QMJHL's Atlantic teams play on amid COVID-19 pandemic: 'It gets a little surreal'

Once the national anthem is over and the referee drops the puck at centre ice, the action looks exactly the same to Jim Hulton. The hits, the goals, the speed, the saves.

Once the national anthem is over and the referee drops the puck at centre ice, the action looks exactly the same to Jim Hulton.

The hits, the goals, the speed, the saves.

It's everything else that gives the head coach and general manager of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Charlottetown Islanders pause.

That's because his team is among a handful actually playing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"When you step back and start to read about the rest of the country and about junior hockey, it gets a little surreal," Hulton said in a phone interview this week. "But we just bury our head and forge on, and are thankful every day we have the opportunity."

Hulton's Islanders along with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan, Saint John Sea Dogs, Halifax Mooseheads and Cape Breton Eagles — all located in the tightly-controlled, travel-restricted Atlantic bubble — are the only teams across the 60-member Canadian Hockey League yet to have their 2020-21 schedules impacted by the novel coronavirus.

"Knock on wood," Hulton said. "It's letting us have a little normal feel to things."

That's the exception compared to an overwhelming rule elsewhere.

A number of Quebec-based clubs had outbreaks this month that forced postponements before the league suspended play in both the province's divisions, with six of the 12 franchises located in zones where organized sport is prohibited. 

The Moncton Wildcats also missed games due to New Brunswick government restrictions, but resumed play last weekend, while four Quebec teams have been given the go-ahead to lace up their skates beginning Friday.

But it's been business as usual — as much can be expected in a pandemic — for those five QMJHL clubs in the league's Atlantic division.

Mask-wearing fans are even allowed in arenas, although capacity has been greatly reduced to adhere to physical distancing rules in a region with low infection rates compared to the rest of Canada.

"(The pandemic) has been financially devastating," Sea Dogs president and GM Trevor Georgie said. "But it's not lost on us how fortunate we are to be playing hockey right now.

"I reminded the players recently that these 25 guys are playing hockey, and there's probably 1,300 to 1,500 players in the CHL that aren't. It's important to not forget that."

The Western Hockey League said earlier this month it plans to begin the season Jan. 8, while the Ontario Hockey League announced Thursday it's aiming for a Feb. 4 start date.

But with infection numbers heading in the wrong direction where those teams play — not to mention border issues with U.S.-based teams — whether the WHL or OHL actually get things off the ground remains a big question mark.

Charlottetown, meanwhile, played its first home games last weekend because the Eastlink Centre had been set up as a COVID-19 testing facility.

The Islanders welcomed the maximum number of fans allowed into the venue — 970 total — for both Friday's 5-1 win over Saint John and Saturday's 4-1 triumph against Moncton. 

"People adjusted very quickly," Hulton said. "Normally sports is an entertainment vehicle, but it's become a nice distraction for our community to perhaps not think about COVID protocols everywhere. Once they get into the rink, yea they have to wear a mask, but they can sit down and watch a hockey game and have some fun. 

"And it was great for us. Even with the limited capacity you could really feel the buzz in the building. It was nice. It was creeping back towards the normal feeling."

Georgie said he's been impressed with how his players have handled life in the pandemic, one that includes plenty of health protocols, remote learning and minimal socializing. 

"The majority were born in 2002 or younger," he said. "It's the first moment in their lives on a global scale that's impacted the world. I find them to be very open-minded, very attentive. They certainly feel like they're living life compared to those outside (the bubble).

"They know what's at stake if we have a COVID outbreak on our team."

One bonus of Atlantic clubs only playing each other — anyone entering the four-province bubble must self-isolate two weeks, which currently makes games against Quebec-based teams a non-starter — is the possibility of having the temperature rise between and after the whistles.

"In the Maritimes there's already big rivalries," Georgie said. "But when you're playing 12 times, you're going to get some bad blood."

And while the games are continuing, it's hard not to wonder where this is all going with winter just around the corner and the country already in the middle of a second coronavirus wave.

Can the season be completed? What will the playoffs look like? And how about the Memorial Cup, which was cancelled for the first time last season?

The OHL is scheduled to host the Memorial Cup in Oshawa or Sault Ste. Marie in June.

"If you stand back and look at it, there's not a lot of reason to be optimistic," Hulton said. "That part kind of hangs over you ... the 'What if?' We read the paper every day, we talk to our friends in Ontario and the Western league, and they're not going. So you think, 'OK, can we survive with six teams or 12 teams?' It doesn't seem feasible yet, but we're going to push through and see where it takes us.

"We're just living in our own little world here."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 29, 2020.


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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press