'Missing out on a big year': SJHL players remain sidelined as return to play decision looms
REGINA -- Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League players have been in limbo ever since their season was paused in November 2020.
Now, with a decision about return to play approval on the horizon, players are ready for some certainty after almost 12 months of navigating restrictions, pauses and cancellations.
Zach Cain, an 18 year-old forward on the Melville Millionaires, was gearing up for his first full SJHL season in 2020-21.
The Pilot Butte-born winger said the league getting approval to play for the fall of 2020 made things feel a bit more like an ordinary hockey season.
"It was awesome. It was just like a sense of normalcy again," Cain said. "It was my first year of junior, so it brought me back to the minor hockey that’s all I've known."
Since the SJHL paused its 2020-21 season on Nov. 25, 2020 due to pandemic-related restrictions implemented by the Government of Saskatchewan, players have had to make some difficult decisions to keep busy.
"It's tough, especially with the not knowing what to do. Whether you should commit to getting a job or something, a lot of us are up in the air about that. Or maybe taking some classes to try and get some of those out of the way before becoming a full time student," Cain said. "The uncertainty is what sucks the most for us."
Weyburn Red Wings winger Braden Birnie called the cancellation frustrating, since the season had essentially just begun.
"When we found out that the season was cancelled, it was pretty disappointing, because we were just starting to figure things out and get into the groove of things," Birnie said.
Birnie, a 19 year-old from Weyburn, is hoping he can turn his time in the SJHL into a university scholarship or professional career.
"To get a university degree and be able to play hockey at the same time has always been a dream. You talk about going overseas and playing hockey too, not many people get the opportunity to do that. If I was fortunate enough to do that I would definitely take that up," Birnie said.
However, the paused season has made it difficult to showcase his skills to scouts.
"Your 19 year-old year is a big year for, not only development but for guys seeing you and getting that opportunity to watch you play," Birnie said. "Everyone is missing out on a big year."
Weyburn Red Wings head coach and general manager Rich Pilon agrees that being on the ice is most important for those players that want to make the jump to the next level.
"When their tool of playing hockey to get better, to get those scholarships, gets put on hold, it's no different than any person going to a job and being told you can't practice your trade to move forward," Pilon said.
Birnie has one year left of SJHL eligibility left and will return to the league for his final season in 2021-22. On the other hand, current 20-year-old players may have had their final opportunity to earn a scholarship, if the season does not resume.
"If you're a 20 year-old without a commitment right now, this is your last chance to get it," Jason Tatarnic, the head coach and general manager of the Estevan Bruins, said.
"These kids have been working really hard for this. To not be on that stage and have that exposure, you're just limiting opportunity for them."
Estevan and Weyburn are two teams that are pushing hard for the league to return to play. The SJHL is currently in talks with the Government of Saskatchewan about a potential hub format.
"We continue to work with the SJHL on their proposal to return to play. No decision has been made," the province said, in the statement.
With questions about whether or not the season will resume, opportunities are coming at a premium for any 20 year-olds that have yet to secure a scholarship for next year. Canadian universities have granted their players an additional year of eligibility, which further limits open roster spots.
"The opportunities are even getting smaller and smaller for them, so they definitely have to get on the ice and play for some limited spots," Tatarnic said.
Despite the rule changes at the university level, SJHL president Bill Chow said the league is not interested in extending eligibility for players currently in their 20 year-old year.
SCOUTING DURING A PANDEMIC
Not only has the paused season had an effect on current SJHL players, it has also impacted the junior hockey prospects of Bantam-aged players.
"You've got all these young players now hoping to be a WHL draft pick or an SJHL draft pick and they are in limbo," Pilon said.
Since in-person scouting is not available, coaches and scouts are using whatever resources they can to assess prospective junior players.
"You're trusting a lot of people that you know with your connections and asking them about certain players because we can't scout," Pilon said.
SJHL President Bill Chow said the league has postponed its Bantam draft, adding another level of uncertainty for prospects.
"We're not sure when we're going to have it, but it has been postponed. We will be having it later in the year at some point in time, and we're still working on those details to figure out what is going to be in the best interest of the teams," Chow said.
Whether the SJHL returns to play or officially cancels the current season, both Braden Birnie and Zach Cain agree some certainty will be welcome after a turbulent year.
"Just a decision either way, just to end the uncertainty, whether we can start preparing for next season," Cain said.
"It's just frustrating not knowing when it's going to end and when were going to be back to a normal set life," Birnie added.
As COVID-19 vaccines are rolled out across Saskatchewan, some hope remains for a more normal season in 2021-22.
Both players remain optimistic for next year and will look to make an impact on their teams, while trying to keep their options open for after their junior careers.
"For me, I've wanted to play hockey as long as I can for my whole life. So if I have the opportunity I'm going to wait as long as I can," Birnie said.
"If that means have no season this season and just wait until the next one I'm going to do that, and I'm going to try and play my last year and see where it takes me."