At least six teams in the ECHL will not be hitting the ice for the upcoming season due to COVID-19 risks and shifting international regulations, according to the league.
The ECHL announced on Wednesday teams in its North Division will not be playing in 2020-21.
That division includes the Adirondack Thunder, Brampton Beast, Maine Mariners, Reading Royals, Worcester Railers and Newfoundland Growlers.
In a media release, ECHL commissioner Ryan Crelin said the league recognizes the difficult nature of the decision, and while some host cities have made plans to include fans inside arenas, the ECHL does not see the same path for highly-affected areas in the northeast.
The league says all six teams elected to cancel the season under its COVID-19 voluntary suspension policy.
Under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement between the ECHL and the Professional Hockey Players’ Association — the union representing minor league players — all players from those six teams are now free agents for the remainder of the season.
Dean MacDonald, chair of Deacon Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Newfoundland Growlers, said the announcement was not surprising given the COVID-19 situation in the United States, particularly in the northeast.
“It’s really tough for the players. It’s tough for our fans — Growler nation — it’s tough for employees. We’re all fans at the end of the day, and we want to see it go ahead,” MacDonald told CBC News.
MacDonald said management notified Growlers players Tuesday night of the team’s decision to opt out.
He said many players who aren’t from Newfoundland and Labrador consider the province a second home, and it’s a “shot to the system” for them not to play in the capital this year.
But, MacDonald continued, they’re professional athletes who want to play the game, and time away from the sport isn’t helpful to them.
Other teams in the ECHL have elected to play this year, but the entire North Division will join at least two more clubs in the choice to sit out the season.
Preseason games begin next month, and according to the ECHL, all teams are set to return for the 2021-22 season.
“We’re disappointed. We’ve created such a great fan base here. It’s like an extended family,” MacDonald said.
“But this is the right decision. First and foremost, no issues about the decision. It’s just safety first, and we’ll be back on the ice, God willing.”
Future of the Growlers
Meanwhile, the Growlers’ affiliation with its big-league parent club, the Toronto Maple Leafs, is set to expire in May of next year.
MacDonald said the relationship has been “wonderful,” but the Growlers are taking a pause on next steps, pending the outcome of the potential sale and management of Mile One Centre, the team’s home arena in St. John’s.
“We’re, of course, waiting for the city [to review] what’s going to happen with Mile One,” he said. “And, of course, depending on the outcome of that, then ourselves and the Leafs will move forward from there.”
Macdonald said Deacon Sports and Entertainment is still interested in buying the venue, and in “a perfect world” the city of St. John’s would remain partial owners in a collaborative effort to rejuvenate the facility.
The Growlers won the ECHL’s Kelly Cup in 2019, defeating the Toledo Walleye in six games.
It became the first professional hockey team in Newfoundland and Labrador to ever win a championship.