MONTREAL — The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League could not save its season when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but seven months later and on the eve of the start of the 2020-21 season, their efforts have paid off.
Within the span of a week in March, COVID-19 snuffed out the Quebec junior league's season, cancelling the final 41 games left to play in its regular season as well as its entire playoffs. The end result was no President's Cup for the first time in league history.
There are still concerns, but league commissioner Gilles Courteau and the managers of the QMJHL teams have worked hard to create a return-to-play plan that includes clear health measures and strict rules.
That hard work appears to have paid off as no positive cases have been recorded since camps began in August.
So the QMJHL will be the first junior hockey league in Canada to kickoff its season beginning Friday.
"We've got a family spirit within our team and for sure with the masks and everything, it distances us a little more, but that was the price to pay to start the season," said Stephane Juilen, head coach and general manager of the Sherbrooke Phoenix.
"The protocol is super strict and there was some adaptation at the start, but after two weeks, we got into a routine and things are going well."
While its players are healthy, the QMJHL faces other financial and logistical challenges as its 12 Quebec-based clubs will play in empty arenas and many of its European and U.S.-based players can't return to Quebec.
So the league is moving forward without knowing if it will be able to complete the 2020-2021 campaign, but if it succeeds, it will have pulled off a feat.
The Phoenix were among the biggest losers when the remainder of the 2019-20 season was cancelled as they sat at No. 1 overall and were seen as a serious President's Cup title contender — and possible Memorial Cup threat.
The Eastern Townships club lost some important figures from their roster including forwards Alex-Olivier Voyer, Felix Robert and Charles-Antoine Roy, but Julien believes his group has matured this season, arriving in good form and ready to take some more adversity.
"Last year our strength was depth," Julien said. "However, I believe that our quality players are coming of age and we still have a lot of experience, especially on defence."
In the Western Conference, the team to watch are the Val-d'Or Foreurs, who made some major trades and added forwards Jakob Pelletier and Maxim Cajkovic as well as defenceman Gabriel Villeneuve. Head coach Daniel Renaud's club boasts a nice mix of veterans and young prospects which should allow them to be in the race to capture its first President's Cup since 2014.
In the Maritimes, after three difficult seasons during which several young players have developed, the Saint John Sea Dogs should return to the top of the standings. Like the Phoenix, the Sea Dogs are coming of age and appear ready to take it to the next level.
A draft like no other
For some QMJHL players, the start of the season will also be marked by the NHL Draft, which will be held virtually Oct. 6-7, after the pandemic postponed the event originally scheduled for June in Montreal.
Barring a big surprise, Alexis Lafreniere should be selected by the New York Rangers with the first overall pick. The COVID-19 pandemic has completely changed the plans for other QMJHL prospects, but the privilege of hearing their names among drafted players will be no less magical.
“It's a shame not being able to experience that in front of the crowd in Montreal, but what I'm going to experience next week, I've been waiting for over a year," said Shawinigan Cataractes forward Mavrik Bourque. "It will be a great time to be drafted and be part of an NHL team. I will continue to work to improve myself."
Bourque is part of a solid contingent of QMJHL players who could be selected in the first round.
Forwards Dawson Mercer, Hendrix Lapierre as well as defencemen Jeremie Poirier, Lukas Cormier and Justin Barron have all featured at one point or another among the top-31 prospects lists of several pundits.
A sneak peak at the 2021 NHL draft?
The 2021 NHL Draft should could also see as many eight of the league's young stars go in the first round.
While there's still a lot of hockey to play, at first glance, the top four picks in the 2019 QMJHL Draft — Joshua Roy, Justin Robidas, Zachary L'Heureux and Zachary Dean — are all strong possibilities to go in the opening round next year.
Forwards Zachary Bolduc, Xavier Bourgault, James Malatesta, Cole Huckins, Olivier Nadeau and Riley Kidney, as well as defencemen Cameron Whynot and Evan Nause could also be knocking on the door.
Robidas also set the tone for his second season in the QMJHL by dominating all players in terms of points during the pre-season games. The Foreurs forward had 10 points, including five goals, in six games.
“I was very motivated to come back to the game and it felt good after several months without hockey,” said Robidas. "It's hard not to think about the draft, but the ultimate goal is to win as a team."
Robidas recognized the Foreurs' struggles last year.
"It was the first time I had experienced this kind of adversity, but it's exciting to see our team can compete every night and can get far in the playoffs," he said.
Sixteen of the 18 QMJHL teams will be in action on Friday, playing in the first games since March 11.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Oct. 1, 2020.
Simon Servant, The Canadian Press