Canadian Hockey League President Dan MacKenzie recently sat down with Junior Hockey Magazine to discuss the cancellation of the 2021 Memorial Cup, how the League is responding to the ongoing pandemic, and the importance of the invaluable scholarship program:
Junior Hockey Magazine: How difficult was it to announce the Memorial Cup cancellation?
Dan MacKenzie: We waited as long as we possibly could to make the announcement. Based on some of the feedback we have received since we made the announcement, no one was really surprised. When we were going through the decision-making process, one of the things that was paramount was making sure that we could legitimately produce league champions and have those league champions play for one of the toughest trophies to win in all of sport. We wanted to make sure we maintained the integrity of that championship. It got to the point where given everything we are dealing with in terms of border closures, quarantining, and just the pandemic in general, we knew that we weren’t going to be able to award the Memorial Cup. It is extremely disappointing but it is the world that we are in right now.
JHM: How difficult has it been in dealing with the varied situations across the country?
DM: I have been really fortunate in the situation that I am in, in that I have really good people that I work with on this. We have three commissioners who have a really good understanding of their leagues and lots and lots of experience. They all have great staffs as well. That has been the most interesting part of this process. The response to the pandemic is very much a local response. As we know, what is happening in the Maritimes is very different than what is happening in Ontario or in the west. Having each of the leagues focused on their area and working with local provincial health, consultants, and regional doctors around decision making has been something that has been really important in terms of the way that we are structured. Myself and the commissioners, we speak multiple times a week, and we have been doing it over the entire past year so we can keep each other informed in terms of what we are dealing with and what the latest information is because it changes and things change so quickly.
JHM: Have you been given any indication of any possibility to play some games in the OHL this year?
DM: Those discussions are being led by Dave Branch and those discussions are ongoing. They have been going through that process. It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to comment on those discussions but I think at the end of the day right across the league we understand how important it is that our players have the opportunity to develop and are given those opportunities, especially given what stage of their career that they are in. We know that it is really important and it is something we are going to continue to work toward in providing those development opportunities.
JHM: Are there any options under consideration for a showcase event of NHL Draft eligible players?
DM: That is a critical thing we are focused on right now is if we have the ability to put something together that would allow for that. It is something we would like to try to make happen and we are having discussions around that right now. We are not anywhere yet where we are ready to announce anything but it is something we are considering because we do realize the importance, especially if you are in your draft year. We realize that not all of our players have had the opportunities to showcase their skills the way we want them to. It is something we are currently in discussions on but are not quite there yet in terms of making an announcement.
JHM: How important have your mental health programs been over the past 14 months?
DM: It has been really important. There are the two pieces to it. There are the kids who are playing, and in some cases the format of play and the way it has been deemed to be safe varies by the provincial health organizations. So in some cases, we have bubble cases like in Regina where the players are in a bubble similar to the way it was in the NHL. In other scenarios, they are being billeted. There is a variety of different ways it has come to life. Those kinds of situations can create mental health challenges because of the isolation and the quarantining. Then there are also the players who have not been able to get back and play, and the mental health challenges associated with that. The common way we have been dealing with it is working with our clubs on trying to provide them with the tools and working with organizations like the Canadian Mental Health Association to make sure the clubs have the tools to be able to have these discussions with the players and letting them know that it is okay if they are not okay. There are resources and help available. We are making sure that message comes through loud and clear. That is the most important thing at the outset, and then getting any players who need any assistance or the help that they need.
JHM: How important is it that the CHL scholarship program continued this year unabated by the pandemic?
DM: It is critically important. We often say that playing CHL hockey really provides our athletes with the best of both worlds. They have the ability to get an unrivaled development opportunity in the best development league in the world but then also the ability to have your educational needs covered when you go to university when you are finished playing. Having that continue through this pandemic just shows the commitment of our owners and our leagues to the academic side of this. Not only are we about trying to let players realize their hockey dreams, but if that doesn’t work out, to realize their educational dreams as well and set them up to be great citizens down the line. That is part and parcel with who we are.
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