QMJHL plans to play 60-game season in bubble

The commissioner of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is moving ahead with plans to play a 60-game season, despite delays and obstacles brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Commissioner says league moving ahead despite difficulties posed by pandemic

Seven Quebec Major Junior Hockey League teams are set to play each other in a 21-game series in a bubble in Quebec City beginning on Nov. 17. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The commissioner of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League says players and staff always knew that getting — and staying — on the ice would be difficult this year.

Positive COVID-19 cases and government restrictions have already created a series of obstacles and delays, but Gilles Courteau said the league remains committed to playing a 60-game season.

"Every time that there's a specific situation, all kinds of issues that we might face, we're always in solution mode to find a way to make sure our players are going to continue to play," the commissioner said on a video call Tuesday. "Our players are going to keep faith in our season. They all know it's not an easy situation."

The latest plan for keeping the season alive is to have seven teams play in a bubble at the Videotron Centre in Quebec City. The series, set to take place from Nov. 17 to 27, will see each team play six games — one against each of the other teams.

The clubs — the Gatineau Olympiques, the Drummondville Voltigeurs, the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, the Victoriaville Tigers, the Shawinigan Cataractes, the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, and the Quebec Remparts — all saw their games suspended in mid-October when the Quebec government banned organized sports and recreational activities in "red zones" as the number of COVID cases jumped dramatically.

Courteau said the league has worked "hand in hand" with public health officials to get the impacted teams back on to the ice.

Each player and staff member will be tested by a private company before entering the controlled environment, and then tested again every three days once in the bubble. Courteau said the league has not yet determined whether the subsequent tests will be through a private company or through the public healthcare system.

An operating budget for the series has not yet been finalized, Courteau said, but each of the seven teams will help cover the expenses and the league will absorb any extra costs through its operating budget.

Province steps in with financial relief

Last month, the Quebec government gave $12 million to help the league weather the pandemic. Each Quebec-based club was given $1 million.

The funding is meant to "assure the survival of the league," said Quebec's junior education minister, Isabelle Charest.

Five of the league's Quebec-based teams have already resumed play because they are in yellow or orange zones where organized sports are allowed.

Last week, the Sherbrooke Phoenix played their first game in a month, facing off against the Val-d'Or Foreurs.

The Phoenix are one of four QMJHL squads that have seen COVID outbreaks this season.

Soon after the season started on Oct. 2, the Armada announced an outbreak with 18 members of the club tested positive. The Phoenix — who faced the Armada in a season-opening series — announced eight positive cases days later.

The Voltigeurs and Sagueneens have also had positive cases.

Atlantic teams up and running

Things have been different for the league's Maritimes Division this year.

Five of the six teams have managed to play much of the regular season as scheduled, with some arenas in the Atlantic bubble even allowing fans to attend games.

The Moncton Wildcats saw their season suspended for two weeks due to provincial government restrictions, but the team resumed play on Oct. 23.

There are no plans to change how the league is currently operating in the Maritimes because things have gone well so far, Courteau said.

"But we never know what's going to happen mid to long term," he added. "And if something happens, from the experience that we will have in Quebec City, we might be in a better position to come to (provincial health authorities in the Maritimes) if need be."

The Western Hockey League is planning to begin its season in January 2021, while the Ontario Hockey League is looking to return in February.

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