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‘The fact that we have returned is a major step’

Rayside-Balfour Canadians forward Mitchell Martin takes part in a practice at Chelmsford Arena in Chelmsford, Ontario on Friday, October 16, 2020. BEN LEESON/THE SUDBURY STAR/POSTMEDIA NETWORK

Commissioner Mazzuca talks return-to-play plans as NOJHL prepares to drop puck on regular season


Ben Leeson – The Sudbury Star
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NOJHL teams had their first taste of game action only days ago, but players, staff and league officials have been anything but idle these last few months.

Commissioner Robert Mazzuca secured approval from the Ontario Hockey Federation last week for a return to head-to-head play, with a first set of exhibition games this past weekend and regular-season contests to begin by the end of the week. He said the mere fact that a 2020-21 season has begun, even with modified rules, is a testament to the tireless efforts of people across the league, as well as regional and provincial hockey administrators and public health officials.

“There’s a lot of people to thank for that, who have worked together,” said Mazzuca, who has served as NOJHL commissioner since 2011.

“It has been a process, but everybody worked together and had a common goal to achieve.”

He tipped his hat to officials at the Northern Ontario Hockey Association, led by executive director Jason Marchand, and to league staff and the various health units whose blessing was required for games to go ahead, as well as the OHF itself.

There will certainly be more challenges, he said, as players, officials, coaches and league brass adjust to a rule set that prohibits hitting, along with other changes, but the effort is worthwhile.

“It’s different, really different from last year, with the modified rules,” he said. “But I’m glad for the players, who have been off for a number of months. They have had skills and drills, but that was getting a bit long, for sure.”

All games, including the Rayside-Balfour Canadians’ anticipated home opener against Timmins on Nov. 15, will take place under strict COVID-19 protocols, including a reduced number of spectators.

In-person attendance has been capped at 50, with some venues paring that number even further, though games will still be streamed online at HockeyTV.com.

Feedback from the first few exhibition games, contested in Sault Ste. Marie, Espanola, Blind River, Noelville, Cochrane and Hearst, has been positive, Mazzuca said.

While some of the NOJHL’s siblings in the Canadian Junior Hockey League, including those based in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, the Ottawa area and the Maritimes, have already returned to some form of exhibition or regular-season play, high-level hockey has been a rare thing in Ontario, where even the OHL has delayed its start date due to the ongoing pandemic. 

But the OHF, as the designated provincial sport organization for most hockey in the province, recently gave approval for not only the NOJHL, but organizations such as the Ontario Junior Hockey League and Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League, to play their first games since mid-March, without body contact and with several other new rules in place, in an effort to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus.

“There’s differences from place to place, significant differences,” said Mazzuca, who noted that leagues in western Canada have allowed checking, for example. “But because of the situation we’re in, first and foremost, safety for the players, for the billets, for the staff and for the communities are paramount.”

The first portion of a regular-season schedule is to be announced early this week, but travel is sure to be reduced and teams will be grouped into cohorts, playing only one another for six straight games, before the cohorts are changed — once again, with approval from public health authorities.

“Things change by the day, with what’s going on health-wise and all the cases, so it’s complicated and it’s intense, and I can just imagine what the health unit has to deal with — and they have to deal with us,” Mazzuca said. “So they will direct us, what we can and can’t do, and we’re going to follow.”

While some may pine for a more traditional, more physical style, the commissioner hopes fans will give the COVID-era NOJHL a chance.

“I think what everyone must realize and accept, right now as the rules and the guidelines are from the government, it’s going to be no body contact,” Mazzuca said. “I don’t foresee that changing.”

Players, by and large, seem to welcome the opportunity to compete. Members of the Canadians, for example, have stated they’d rather embrace non-contact hockey than sit out. Indeed, a focus on speed and skill, which are already hallmarks of the modern game, may benefit some skaters.

“You look back and where we were in March, when everything was suspended and cancelled, and I think everybody has learned so much from what we read and what we see on TV, how serious this situation is health-wise, and then, you try to apply that to a sport, how to protect the players,” Mazzuca said.

“The players themselves are learning, they’re getting an education from all of this themselves, and then we, as hockey people, the ones who are responsible for this, we have to work with governments, health units and governing bodies to put protocols in place that are going to protect them, to show how we could return. The fact that we have returned is a major step, and you hear our political leaders saying we’re trying to get back to some form of normal, but the new normal is different, there’s no doubt about that.

“It’s not only good for them to get back on the ice, but they’re also learning and educating themselves, and that’s part of our job in junior hockey, to develop players both on the ice and off the ice, and in the situation we’re in, I think they’re learning a lot of responsibility and about how serious this is, too.”

Mazzuca said the league will release its schedule in four-week cycles, but will be prepared to make adjustments amid an ever-changing situation. Most clubs should be ready to play this weekend, though the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners just wrapped up their first week of training camp and the Powassan Voodoos have yet to officially start, while the Elliot Lake Wildcats have taken a one-year leave of absence from the NOJHL. The Soo Eagles, the league’s lone American entry, remain unable to cross the Canada-U.S. border, but have started an exhibition schedule. 

“I can’t tell you what’s going to happen tomorrow, but I can plan for four weeks. Teams will need to plan buses and expenses and all that stuff, and players will need to know, and the parents need to know how all of this intertwines with major junior minor hockey and how the rules apply. This year, for example, there’s no affiliation permitted.”

Rather than calling players up, from the U18 ranks for example, teams will have to set a roster of no more than 25 players for the year.

“There’s going to be adjustments along the way, I’m sure, but we’ll make those adjustments as we go,” Mazzuca added.

One thing they won’t change, he said, is their commitment to following health directives, as he doesn’t want to see a season, or even one game jeopardized because someone decides to bend the rules.

“You get a set of guidelines from the health unit, they tell you what you can and can’t do, and you follow it. It’s pretty simple. A lot of it is common sense, just everyday stuff — wear a mask, you’ve got sanitizer, you’ve got gloves, and just follow the rules as an individual, as an ordinary person, and you should be OK.”

bleeson@postmedia.com

Twitter: @ben_leeson