Not that it came as a particular shock, but the NOJHL (Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League) confirmed on Wednesday the cancellation of the remainder of the 2020-2021 for all three teams based in Greater Sudbury and area.
The health and safety restrictions necessitated by the on-going battle with COVID-19 more or less forced the league's hand, meaning that the Espanola Express, French River Rapids and Rayside-Balfour Canadians will next hit the ice, in league action, in September of 2021, at the earliest.
The decision appeared somewhat inevitable when both the City of Greater Sudbury as well as the municipalities of both Espanola and Noelville (home arena for the Rapids) announced their intentions to remove the ice surface from their rinks for the balance of this winter season.
"The NOJHL respects and understands the difficult decisions made by all-involved parties," stated league commissioner Robert Mazzuca in a league issued release. "All of our member clubs, including the Espanola Express, French River Rapids and Rayside-Balfour Canadians, did an incredible job working together to make the best out of a very trying situation."
"Unfortunately, with the increased number of COVID-19-related cases in the Greater Sudbury area, it made it extremely hard to continue the season in these three communities."
The NOJHL did confirm, with a degree of pride, that thanks to the due diligence, strategic planning and testing of all teams, as well as working closely with local towns and regional Public Health Units, there were no positive cases that resulted from league players, coaching staffs or officials.
Though NOJHL players will remain on the sidelines locally, there is still some junior hockey action to be found in the north, as various pockets of population continue to beat the odds, keeping pandemic numbers at a minimum.
The Soo Thunderbirds and Blind River Beavers are expected to continue with the current cohort series, adding an additional set of games once the existing slate is completed.
For management of the Express, the Rapids and the Canadians, however, it's time to begin looking towards 2021-2022.
"While it's not the news we were hoping for today in Espanola, French River and Rayside-Balfour, we wish everyone the best, especially those who are concluding their Junior "A" careers with us," stated the media release.