The Ontario Hockey League has seen another one of its clubs sidelined by COVID-19.
The OHL announced Friday the Flint Firebirds have suspended all team activities as a result of 11 members of their organization testing positive.
The league says all players and staff affected are “currently asymptomatic or exhibiting mild symptoms.”
Flint represents the third major coronavirus outbreak on the junior circuit this season.
The Erie Otters, another U.S.-based club, were also forced to suspend activities earlier this week when 13 players tested positive.
The Sudbury Wolves had six of their games postponed after 12 positive cases were discovered two weeks ago.
Games involving Flint and Erie set for Friday and Saturday have been postponed.
The league also announced Friday it was postponing two games involving the Niagara IceDogs due to COVID-19 protocols.
Friday’s match between the IceDogs and Wolves was postponed, as well as Saturday’s encounter featuring Niagara and the North Bay Battalion. The league says both games will be rescheduled.
The OHL has been forced to scratch a total of 18 games so far this season because of COVID-19, including 12 this week.
The league requires all players, staff, officials and billets to be vaccinated.
The commissioner of the OHL had been hopeful rising COVID-19 case counts across the province wouldn’t force the government’s hand.
He could also read the tea leaves.
Ontario announced a 50-per-cent limit on venues – including hockey arenas – with capacities of more than 1,000 people this week in hopes of slowing the spread of the pandemic’s latest wave fuelled by the fast-moving Omicron variant.
And while the NHL and NBA grabbed the early headlines, and will have far fewer people in the stands when the new rules come into effect Saturday, a junior circuit that overwhelmingly relies on ticket sales to keep the lights on is staring down yet more potential hardships.
“We’re somewhat, you could say, veterans to the battle against COVID,” Branch told The Canadian Press during a phone interview Friday. “And while it’s disappointing that we have to take actions such as this, we understand and support the initiatives.
“We all have a role to play.”
The OHL has endured 19 tough months since the pandemic brought much of the sports world to a screeching halt in March 2020. The 2019-20 campaign had to be eventually scrapped – the same was true for Canada’s other top-tier junior leagues – while last season was cancelled outright.
Teams across Ontario welcomed fans back with open arms in September, but are now facing more uncertainty.
“I really don’t want to project on what the financial challenges will be,” said Branch, whose league has 17 franchises in province and three in the United States. “There will be issues around that. But any number of businesses are affected as well.
“Our owners are committed … we’ll do everything it takes to meet the challenges.”
North Bay Battalion president Mike Griffin said the situation could be become bleak in short order for some clubs.
“I can assure you that not many teams will, at half capacity, be in a good financial position,” he said. “It will be something that we will deal with month by month.
“Hopefully this thing gets under control sooner rather than later.”
Ontario, however, reported more than 3,000 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, with projections worsening as the holidays approach.
The OHL has also had to deal with three recent major COVID-19 issues – including two this week.
The season started normally, but the first signs of trouble came earlier this month when the Sudbury Wolves had 12 players test positive. There have been a pair of outbreaks impacting a total of 24 people, although the Otters and Firebirds are based in the U.S.
“We’re constantly making adjustments to our [COVID-19] protocols,” Branch said when asked if rules need to be adjusted because of the variant. “As we gather more information, it may result in further steps [and] measures.”
The OHL is taking a planned holiday break beginning Monday before resuming action on Dec. 29.
“We’re going to play that schedule as long as it’s safe and advisable,” Branch said. “And we will play those games that are remaining without prejudicing the safety and welfare of our players and everyone else is the community – and our fans.
“Then we’ll re-evaluate as we all gather more information on this latest variant, and how we best move forward.”
Despite the realities facing teams across the province, Branch wanted to make it clear the current situation in Ontario is impacting far more than his league.
“This is a hit for everyone,” Branch said. “The challenges that we face aren’t isolated to junior hockey. We’re just one segment.
“We’ve got to find solutions.”