QMJHL Players Look Destined to Once Again Be Bubble Boys

The Quebec League postponed almost as many games as it played, then shut down a month early trying to play the conventional format and appears headed for bubble play again.
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The Quebec League has already postponed 97 of 189 games, with another 64 coming off the books in the month of December. Its season is hanging by a thread with no end in sight to the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who gradually has his limbs chopped off an insists they’re merely flesh wounds, the QMJHL vows to forge on. Of course, it’s much easier to stem those wounds when you have $20 million in taxpayer money propping up your business.

“We have never talked about cancelling the season at all,” said QMJHL commissioner Gilles Courteau. “When we made the decision back in August about resuming playing, we knew and the message to our owners has been very clear. The message to our owners and GMs has been very clear, that we would go through some roadblocks throughout the season.”

The league announced Monday that it would be breaking early for the holidays and reconvening subject to public health protocols in January. But chances are the league will return to a bubble set-up in late January. If the league can return to playing and travelling in the four provinces in which it operates, it will pick up its schedule Jan. 6 without fans in the Quebec arenas. If not, it will return to what Courteau described as ‘protected environments’. That will start with a slate of games the weekend of Jan. 22-24 with teams playing two games in three days in six venues, four in Quebec and two in the Maritimes. If the restrictions are still in place, three groups of four teams will play six games each in one bubble over nine days from Jan. 30 to Feb. 7 and the six Maritime teams will play five games over eight days from Jan. 30 to Feb. 6. Beyond that, Courteau said the league will “take stock of the situation with public health officials of each of the four provinces.”

The QMJHL will simply continue with its bubble events in protected environments as long as the pandemic continues to restrict their ability to travel, something that could last the entire season. Courteau said the bubbles are conditional upon approval of the health regulators in the four provinces where the league plays. And he was pleased with the results of a recent bubble in Quebec City that allowed teams in the province’s ‘red zone’ to make up some lost games. “We faced some specific issues, but what I think happened over the last two weeks in Quebec City has been a real boost for our teams,” Courteau said. “It’s been a real positive event and gave us faith when we sit down with the four provinces’ public health departments that we have a good plan for them and we’ve been successful in Quebec and we’re expecting the same.”

It’s becoming pretty clear that if a league wants to play uninterrupted, the only way it can do that is within a bubble, which presents some unique problems for the NHL. The players have made it clear that they do not see long-term bubbles as a solution and when given the choice between travelling between cities and entering even short-term bubbles – two weeks in and two weeks out – they elected for the former.

But as we’ve seen from other leagues, doing that is not without its problems. Virtually every league that has tried to do it in the conventional way has encountered everything from hiccups to full-blown outbreaks that have caused postponements. The NHL has all the resources in the world at its fingertips, but there is still so much the league cannot control. It’s a fait accompli that there will be an all-Canadian division, but what if British Columbia or Alberta, two provinces that are struggling at the moment, suddenly shut their borders the way the Maritime provinces have?

“The NHL is in a different situation financially and with their players’ association, all their sponsors, TV agreements and all that,” Courteau said. “We’re not at this level. We’re very happy with the way we’ve been able to deal with the situation so far. We don’t know (what’s going to happen) and that’s why we came up with a proposal to be ready for it in case the pandemic is still the same or goes to a negative evolution.”

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