By Michael Boriero – Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Sherbrooke Phoenix are looking to replicate a historic regular season in 2019-2020, after the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League was cut short due the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Phoenix sat atop the league standings with 51 wins and 106 points. Unfortunately, they were unable to claim the championship title with the post-season cancelled because of the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus throughout the province.
The team is back at the Palais des Sports Leopold-Drolet, however, ready to follow-up an impressive campaign. But they will be doing it without fans and following several strict health and safety measures drawn up by Quebec’s health authority.
“The difference from last year is wearing a mask all the time and keeping a distance, so for a sports team where you’re used to being very tight together and you know doing meetings, now we have to do that in different spaces to keep our distance,” said Stéphane Julien.
The head coach and general manager told The Record that along with the usual precautions, players are also expected to take a temperature test upon walking into the arena. They are also required to update a Covid application on their phones.
While his players have been away from the arena for the better part of six months, Julien said a majority of them returned to training camp in game shape. They played several exhibition games, and the no fans policy doesn’t seem to have bothered them too much, either.
“The guys responded very well since day one of training camp, they came back in very good shape,” Julien said. “On the ice, I don’t see any changes so far, I mean the guys are working hard and the focus is there.”
However, he did question the motivation level of his players as the season wears on without any cheers coming from the stands. When it’s at capacity, Sherbrooke’s arena is an intimidating place, he explained, so they’re losing that edge, as well.
But despite all of that, he believes his team will be able to hunker down and focus on building off of a memorable regular season. He added that there isn’t any pressure for his team; they might be missing a few players, but they’re still the team to beat, he explained.
“I think we still have a top five team even if our best goalie is not here, we’re missing a Russian defenceman and we’re missing an American defenceman, but other teams are missing some European players, too,” Julien continued.
According to the head coach, QMJHL officials are working diligently to get international players back onto their respective teams. The process is a lot slower than usual due to the border closure, he lamented, there’s a lot more paper work involved with the provincial government.
“The league is working hard to get those guys across,” he said. “I believe that in the next few days we’ll have some good news and they’ll probably come over, but they still have to do a quarantine before they play.”
With several Quebec regions recently designated red zones, and several others pushing the orange zone label, Julien recognizes that the regular season remains in jeopardy of being postponed or cancelled again.
But he said there isn’t much more the players and the league can do about it. The QMJHL follows different protocols compared to Hockey Quebec, but ultimately it’s out of their hands, especially if there’s a surge in cases in Sherbrooke.
“It’s very fragile right now, but the league has been working very hard and our team, too. Players are going to school at the
rink, they don’t leave the city, and they cannot go see their parents,” said Julien.
The Phoenix kicked off its 2020-2021 regular season campaign with an 8-5 loss to the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada on Friday evening. They followed that up with a 4-2 loss on Sunday, again to the Armada.
In a press release Monday afternoon, Sherbrooke announced it will suspend in-person team activities until further notice, after a
Blainville hockey player tested positive for COVID-19. The teams will wait for Quebec’s public health authority to complete its investigation.