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It feels like one step forward, one step back, as the QMJHL tries to stage its 2020-21 campaign in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not long after Giles Courteau's Quebec Major Junior Hockey League launched its protected environment event in Quebec City, several cracks appeared in the previously stable Maritime Division.
On Thursday afternoon, the news came down that a Saint John Sea Dogs staff member had tested positive for the virus and by Saturday so had a staff member of the Halifax Mooseheads.
As has been the case all season, players on every team fill out a COVID application, monitoring symptoms. No players from Saint John and Halifax's most recent opponents, Cape Breton and Bathurst, were exhibiting symptoms, but news from the third province in the Maritimes threatens the schedule.
On Monday, Prince Edward Island removed itself from the Atlantic bubble for a two-week period. On Tuesday morning, it was announced that the Charlottetown Islanders and the provincial government had agreed that regular QMJHL season games will not take place during the duration of P.E.I.'s absence from the travel bubble.
But whenever the Islanders return to action, everyone will be watching Cédric Desruisseaux.
The Isles star 20-year-old has goals in 13 consecutive games — just the second time this millennium the feat has been accomplished in the Q.
If Desruisseaux scores in his next game, he'll match Sidney Crosby's streak from 2004-05 in Rimouski. Desruisseaux trails Cape Breton Eagles captain Shawn Element by one point for the scoring lead — Element having recorded a point in all 15 Eagle games this fall.
Last Thursday's COVID result was a double whammy for the Sea Dogs, as their city, along with Moncton, was placed into an orange zone by the New Brunswick government.
Travel is now restricted in and out of New Brunswick's two biggest cities, putting them both on the sidelines.
Things are picking up in Quebec as they slow in the Maritimes.
On Nov. 17, the QMJHL began an ambitious schedule for seven teams partaking in a bubble project in Quebec City. The hockey bubble will see each club playing six games through 10 days.
With the early part of the event in the rear-view mirror, the Gatineau Olympiques and Blainville-Boisbriand Armada have taken to the headlines.
For the Armada, Luke Henman is a man on a mission. After Carolina elected not to sign him, having drafted him in 2018, the 20-year-old posted an absurd 14 points in his first six games — all Blainville-Boisbriand victories.
At the other end of the age spectrum, the rookies are impressing in Gatineau. Four of the top eight picks in this past June's draft — Tristan Luneau, Antonin Verreault, Samuel Savoie and Noah Warren — helped the Olympiques off to a 6-1 start.
Life hasn't been normal for the non-bubble Quebec teams.
Prior to the season, East and West Division teams weren't expected to face each other in 2020-21. But to prevent Baie-Comeau and Rimouski and Val-d’Or and Rouyn-Noranda from continuously playing each other, the league approved inter-divisional scheduling.
There were additional hurdles with the plan. Val-d’Or was scheduled to play a pair of games in Baie-Comeau and one in Rimouski, while Rouyn-Noranda was slated to play two in Rimouski and then one in Baie-Comeau. But due to ferry issues, Val-d'Or played and won three in Baie-Comeau, while the Huskies beat the Océanic two of three tries.
Meanwhile, the Sherbrooke Phoenix have been left out in the cold. The city of Sherbrooke was placed into the red zone after the QMJHL made plans for its Quebec City bubble. Phoenix coach Stéphane Julien has publicly predicted his team will not play another game in 2020.
One of Sherbrooke's stars — forward Samuel Poulin — is hoping to play for Team Canada at the World Juniors which are scheduled to take place in Alberta Dec. 26-Jan. 5. Eight other QMJHLers are taking part in the camp — forwards Mavrik Bourque (Shawinigan), Hendrix Lapierre and Dawson Mercer (Chicoutimi), Jakob Pelletier (Val-d'Or) and Xavier Simoneau (Drummondville) along with defencemen Justin Barron (Halifax), Jordan Spence (Moncton) and Lukas Cormier (Charlottetown).
Mercer is looking for a second straight gold medal with Canada after being on last year's club. Their opponent in that gold medal game, Russia, has tabbed two QMJHL players for its camp — Victoriaville’s Mikhail Abramov and Shawinigan's Vasily Ponomarev.
While handfuls of the circuit's elite are hoping to participate internationally, the immediate future for those staying back in the league is tenuous.
No Quebec region has emerged from a red zone yet, and there's no schedule established post-bubble. Although uncertainty is prevalent throughout the Q’s most unusual season, the quality of the games happening remains high.
Patrick McNeil is the play-by-play announcer with the Cape Breton Eagles.