CHL's return to regular schedule a chance for exceptional players to make their mark

Exceptions promise to be the rule in the upcoming CHL season. It’s as much of a return to normal as possible, with schedules containing the usual 68 games per team in the lead-up to the Memorial Cup in June hosted by the Saint John Sea Dogs.

Projected top NHL picks Shane Wright, Connor Bedard to play 1st full junior seasons

Connor Bedard, seen above with Canada at the U-18 world championship in June, is one of two exceptional-status players in the Canadian Hockey League season. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Exceptions promise to be the rule in the upcoming Canadian Hockey League (CHL) season.

Following two consecutive seasons waylaid by the COVID-19 pandemic, action begins in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) on Thursday, the Western Hockey League (WHL) on Friday and the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) on Oct. 7.

It's as much of a return to normal as possible, with schedules containing the usual 68 games per team in the lead-up to the Memorial Cup in June hosted by the Saint John Sea Dogs.

Games will be available every Saturday for six straight weeks on CBC-TV, and the free CBC Gem streaming app, beginning on Oct. 2 through Nov. 13.

Both the 2020 and 2021 Memorial Cups were cancelled because of the pandemic. Additionally, the entire 2021 OHL season was wiped out, while the WHL didn't hold the playoffs and the QMJHL battled through quarantines, breakouts and bubbles to crown the Victoriaville Tigres as champions.

It all means the 2021-22 season will be more unpredictable than ever, says play-by-play announcer Victor Findlay, who is calling each of the six games broadcast by CBC Sports.

"We can crunch all the numbers, all the stats and make all the predictions we want to see before the season hits the road here in early October," Findlay told CBC Sports' Rob Pizzo.

"But things could turn out completely differently because there's just so many unknown factors — more than there ever have been before coming into a CHL season."

WATCH | Findlay breaks down what you need to know for coming season:

Previewing the CHL season has never been more difficult

1 year ago
Duration 9:47
All three leagues in the CHL had very different “COVID seasons”, which makes this campaign very tough to predict.

One certainty: all eyes will be on the Kingston Frontenacs and Regina Pats to watch projected top NHL draft picks Shane Wright and Connor Bedard.

Both players were granted exceptional status in the CHL, meaning they were allowed to enter the league at 15 — one year earlier than normal — because of their on-ice talent and maturity.

Five players were previously granted exceptional status: John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, Connor McDavid, Sean Day and Joe Veleno. Of that group, only Day was drafted to the NHL outside of the first round.

"Shane Wright [is] very much following in their footsteps," Findlay said in reference to Tavares and McDavid.

And so expectations are already high for Wright, who is draft-eligible in 2022 and Bedard, who's a year behind.

Wright's Frontenacs didn't play last season, but the 17-year-old Burlington, Ont., native was captain of Canada's U-18 team, leading the way with nine goals in five games en route to world championship gold. He also posted 66 points in 58 games during the halted 2019-20 campaign.

"At this point, he's the consensus number one in the entire draft," Findlay said.

Wright could be the top pick in the 2022 NHL draft. (Reuben Polansky-Shapiro/The Canadian Press)

Bedard, meanwhile, equalled Wright with 14 points in that tournament, notching seven goals and seven assists himself. In 15 games with Regina last season, the 16-year-old from North Vancouver, B.C., recorded 28 points — 12 goals and 16 assists.

Pats head coach Dave Struch told The Canadian Press following the season that Bedard's even-keeled demeanour stood out even above the forward's immense talent.

"He's got a goal in life. But he lives in the moment. When he comes back to the bench he's ready to move on. That's what a player in the NHL does. He's doing that already," Struch said.

Elsewhere in the WHL, Findlay pegs Matthew Savoie as the player most likely to be taken in the first round of the 2022 draft.

"One of the most exciting, quick, fast, skilled, young, agile players right now in the world for his age group," Findlay said of the of the 17-year-old from St. Albert, Alta.

Bedard's Pats take on the Prince Albert Raiders in their opening game across CBC platforms on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET. Wright's Frontenacs round out the CBC schedule against the Mississauga Steelheads on Nov. 13 at 3 p.m. ET.

There doesn't appear to be a clear-cut star in the QMJHL, but Findlay says the Gatineau Olympiques boast a pair of interesting prospects in defenceman Tristan Luneau and forward Antonin Verreault.

Luneau won defenceman of the year last season, while Verreault's playmaking made him a versatile offensive threat who nearly posted a point per game.

Mandatory vaccines

Playoffs in all three leagues run through April and May before the Memorial Cup in June.

To ensure the seasons reach their end healthily and successfully, each league instituted mandatory vaccine policies that cover all players and hockey staff. In the QMJHL, billet families must also be inoculated against COVID-19, while that's strongly recommended elsewhere.

Meanwhile, scheduling was done in a manner to limit travel. In the WHL, U.S. teams only play against each other until travelling to B.C. late in the season. In the OHL, there are no inter-conference matchups.

A season full of question marks begins on Saturday.

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