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Last Friday, 35 NHL scouts — and zero paying fans — attended Chicoutimi's exhibition game in Shawinigan. Welcome to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League COVID-19 era.
With the unprecedented situation of the NHL draft (Oct. 6-7) coming after the QMJHL regular season begins, potential first rounders Dawson Mercer and Hendrix Lapierre (Chicoutimi) and Shawinigan's Mavrik Bourque were carefully watched. Saint John's Jérémie Poirier and Halifax's Justin Barron could also be selected in the opening round — although the latter is injured.
When the puck drops this Friday more eyes may be on the "Q" than ever. With the NHL season over, no other North American pro league has resumed play, even CHL sister leagues the OHL and WHL are on hold.
The Gatineau Olympiques were at the front of news in this extra-long off-season. The Olympiques tabbed coach Louis Robitaille from Victoriaville, took Tristan Luneau in the first-ever online draft, and learned they'll move into the new Slush Puppie Centre next fall. They were displaced from the Robert Guertin Centre, being used to fight COVID and then temporarily displaced from their replacement rink due to high ammonia levels.
COVID testing was also done at Charlottetown's Eastlink Centre, forcing the Islanders to play their first six games away. When they return the Isles should have limited fans like their Maritime rivals, but the 12 Quebec teams will play in empty rinks.
Demand for online games will be higher than ever, but despite criticisms of Neulion's streaming, the service was retained thanks to TV agreements with Rogers TV and Quebecor Media.
Commissioner Giles Courteau remains optimistic video quality will improve in 2020-21.
Courteau was also busy denying speculation that Québec's provincial government would take away $16 million of pandemic relief unless the league instituted tougher penalties for fighting.
On the ice, the league has been realigned into three six-team divisions, with a reduced 60-game schedule to be played entirely in-division, and a to be determined playoff format.
Travel restrictions mean most import players won't be here to start the season.
In the Maritimes, the skilled Saint John Sea Dogs led by new coach Greg Gilbert should be challenged by an experienced Charlottetown team. With four picks from the 2018 first round, including defenceman Poirier, there is no shortage of star power in Saint John. Meanwhile, the Islanders will return 14 players and have added star goaltender Colten Ellis.
Cape Breton and Halifax will be ready to push as well. The Eagles' Ryan Francis should place in the top 10 in scoring, while the Mooseheads will be buoyed by a deal with Moncton that sent forwards Elliot Desnoyers and Zachary L'Heureux to Moose Country.
That swap helped damage a Moncton roster built to win the 2020 President's Cup. Now the Wildcats will begin rebuilding, along with Bathurst which is still recovering from its 2018 Memorial Cup title.
Realignment has pushed Shawinigan and Victoriaville into the East Division. Much like Saint John, Shawinigan (with new coach Ron Choules) is loaded with top-end 18-year-old talent like Bourque and Xavier Bourgault. The Cataractes will be pushed by Chicoutimi, which took a run at the title last year and will return Mercer and Lapierre.
Victoriaville (under new bench boss Carl Malette) should get off to a strong start with star imports Mikhail Abramov and Egor Serdyuk in place. Rimouski is rebuilding after a title chase last year, although Courteau expects the Océanic to have presumptive No. 1 NHL draft pick Alexis Lafrenière in the lineup until the NHL season begins.
It's not yet time for the Québec Remparts and their talented group of 2003s, while Baie-Comeau's reconstruction continues with a twist — Jean-François Grégoire taking over behind the bench as Jon Goyens left to be with family.
Val-d'Or is favoured to win the West after acquiring Jakob Pelletier from Moncton and seeing their talented 2017 draft class turn 19. Sherbrooke, in first place when the season was suspended on March 12, will be strong again — provided Samuel Poulin doesn't make the jump to Pittsburgh, and that potential top goaltender in the league Samuel Hlavaj returns from Slovakia.
Drummondville, led by superstar Xavier Simoneau up front, and Blainville-Boisbriand with overage stud Luke Henman will both bring back veteran rosters as the West should be the league's best division. With three of the top four picks in this year's draft, Gatineau's best days are in the future, while 2019 Memorial Cup champion Rouyn-Noranda will be competitive but must restock the cupboards.
Of course, while competition for wins in the QMJHL this season will be tough, simply playing the games will be the biggest win of all.
Patrick McNeil is the play-by-play announcer with the Cape Breton Eagles.