Cancellations hit hardest for teams on the verge of something special

Ryan Pyette
Publishing date: March 13, 2020

In 26 years as a professional hockey coach, Clarke Singer never had to deliver a more heart-breaking message to his players.

The University Cup men’s national tournament was cancelled Thursday night because of the coronavirus pandemic, ending Western’s stirring run to the semifinal round.

“The hardest,” the Mustangs bench boss said from the Halifax airport Friday morning. “There have been lots of difficult meetings, but that was, by far, the most difficult. I feel very bad for our graduating guys. It’s one thing to have your career end on the ice. It’s another to end your university career in a meeting room.”

No one disputes the reasons to pull the plug on sports right now and cancel leagues and tournaments. But that doesn’t make it any less bitter or disappointing.

‘It’s our responsibility as leaders in sport to look after the group’s well-being,” Singer said. “I agreed with the organizers and Hockey Canada. This is worldwide and not just about hockey. It’s bigger than that.

“It was just very difficult relaying the message to our team, especially the path we travelled and what we had ahead of us. I’m so proud of what the group accomplished the last six weeks and to slay the dragon again (by knocking off No. 2-ranked Saskatchewan) was a great credit to them.”

This was shaping up to be one of the great springs in London’s rich hockey history.

The Mustangs had a chance to play for a medal at nationals. The Knights are in first place in the OHL’s Western Conference.

The Junior B Nationals were favourites again to reach the Sutherland Cup final, but the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League scrapped its playoffs in the second round Thursday.

“I’m so gutted for all of the guys on our team and our staff,” London GM/coach Pat Powers said. “A guy like Max Vinogradov has put (five years) into winning a championship and as close as we were last year (losing in Game 7 of the final to Waterloo), this is probably the best team we’ve ever had. We’ve got incredible 20-year-olds who aren’t playing university hockey next year and their meaningful hockey careers are done just like that.

Longtime Nationals player Max Vinogradov is playing his final season with the Jr. B Nats in London, Ont.  Photograph taken on Wednesday September 4, 2019.  Mike Hensen/The London Free Press/Postmedia Network
Longtime London Nationals player Max Vinogradov is playing his final season with the Junior B team. His chance to win the Sutherland Cup ended not on the ice, but by a league decision to stop the season because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Mike Hensen/The London Free Press)

“If you lose and you’re done, you can mentally work through that because you got beat. When someone says you’ve won the first game or Round 2 and then pulls the rug from underneath you, you feel like, ‘What just happened?’

“The option to suspend pending a re-evaluation in a few weeks could have been easily done.”

Powers also coaches minor hockey. He believes the decision to outright cancel playoffs at all levels is a knee-jerk reaction to avoid a looming logistical nightmare.

“Everyone here who has sacrificed for youth sports are the ones losing out,” he said. “People still go on vacation and they’re going to come back and restart this whole (containment) process. We’re all sitting here doing nothing now for three weeks and have to clean up the coronavirus, and these people (abroad) come back in a week and a half from March break and now we have to go another two or three more weeks after it.

“We all have parents who are becoming seniors and we have to look out for everybody. But I think there were still ways to limit this instead of cancelling everything.”

Soon enough, the OHL will have to face these same difficult questions. The league has already scrapped next week’s OHL Cup minor midget AAA championships, which would have included the provincially No. 3-ranked Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs.

It’s the last chance scouts will see the 2004-born talent before the major junior draft next month.

“The players are pretty devastated,” Chiefs coach Jason Williams, the former NHLer and Stanley Cup champ, said. “They were really looking forward to playing at the Cup. A lot of people were saying we were one of the favourites.

“That’s over now, but at least we finished the season the right way and won an Alliance championship again. We got to accomplish that goal.”

Wiliams spoke with other top teams in the province, hoping to put together an unofficial tournament with a few of them when the crisis settles and things turn in the right direction. That won’t be easy to get sanctioned and there won’t be a proper timeline for a while.

“It would be something the kids could look forward to and a chance to finish the season,” he said. “They totally cancelled everything and won’t be going to school. You never know — we just have to wait and see where things go.”