Known as a leader with a team-first focus, Emmett Serensits is keenly aware of the impact a year without competitive hockey has had on his Sudbury Wolves teammates.
The 21-year-old defenceman from Oakville, Ont. has not played in a real game since March of 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports worldwide. But while many hockey leagues in North America and Europe have returned to action in 2020-21, or are very near to doing so, the OHL season remains indefinitely delayed.
“It has been extremely tough for a lot of the guys,” said Serensits, who has been working full-time for a company that makes wooden boxes and crates, while waiting on news of a return-to-play plan. “Guys like myself have had to come up with other jobs, to try to help pay for this year and all the skates and stuff we have been doing. It’s definitely one of those things where you want to get back as soon as possible. I wish we could.
“You sit at home every night and you wish the season was finally going to start, that you could get back to seeing the boys again.”
When Owen Sound Attack defenceman Andrew Perrott wrote an open letter to the provincial government and the league earlier this week, detailing the difficulties faced by OHL players who are unable to compete, his words struck a chord with Serensits.
An online petition accompanying Perrott’s letter, urging the province to approve a return to play, had garnered nearly 2,200 signatures as of Friday afternoon.
“No one knows what’s going on right now and we’re being as hopeful as we can be, but there’s a little bit of realism going on, where you think about future paths,” Serensits said. “This would have been my last year and now, I’m starting to think about that school option.
“I definitely thought my OA year would be a lot different, maybe making a run for it. It’s tough, trying to stay motivated. Working out every day, skating during the week, it helps, but I wish it was with the guys, you know?”
Perrott’s letter and petition followed a letter-writing campaign driven by OHL parents earlier this month, which also urged the league and government to find a way to salvage the season. This time, however, the initiative included a series of quotes from anonymous players, detailing the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on their hockey careers and mental health.
Serensits’ close friend and former roommate, Wolves winger Nolan Hutcheson, voiced his support for Perrott’s effort via Twitter on Wednesday, becoming one of the first OHLers to do so publicly.
The 20-year-old from Kingston, Ont. is also eligible to play in the OHL as an overager this season, if and when the league gets underway, but he recently signed with the Nanaimo Clippers of the British Columbia Hockey League. Even if he doesn’t return, he doesn’t want to see his fellow Ontarians denied the opportunity to play.
He signed Perrott’s petition as soon as he saw it.
“You have seen people saying things like hockey players are kind of suffering through and trying to mentally stay tough, but this is the first time an OHL player has actually spoken out and done something like this,” said Hutcheson, reached after a training session in B.C. “I thought if someone has the mentality to get that out there and to show support for the entire league, that as should show my support, as well.
“It’s obviously not only one or two players who are finding it tough, to not be able to skate and practise and get back to games. It’s probably a good majority of the league.
“It would kind of be odd if we didn’t feel that way, because we have been playing hockey our whole lives. Not being given some sort of chance, some sort of opportunity to get back to doing the thing we love, kind of hurts everyone in their own way. Everyone has their own ways of dealing with it, and one of the ways hockey players deal with stress is playing hockey, so there’s a lot of questions in our lives right now.”
While he realizes that safely staging a season during a pandemic is no simple task, Hutcheson noted that the country’s other major junior leagues are active. Western Hockey League teams opened their regular season this week, while Quebec Major Junior Hockey League squads have been playing since fall, with a couple of interruptions.
“That was touched on by Andrew, too — you see the American teams playing, the WHL American division has started up, the Alberta teams are going, the Quebec league is going and they have been able to handle things,” Hutcheson said. “They’re doing a great job of keeping players safe, so why not the Ontario league, as well?”
The league posted a response to Perrott’s letter on social media on Thursday afternoon, reiterating its desire to see the season go ahead.
“The OHL shares our players’ desire to drop the puck on a 2020-21 season as soon as possible,” the league wrote via Twitter. “That is why we are working very closely with the government on how to best facilitate and execute a safe return to play. Those discussions are currently ongoing and we look forward to continuing with the next steps in that process.”
In the meantime, veteran players such as Serensits are doing their best to maintain a team-like atmosphere, even at a distance.
“It starts with the little things,” said Serensits, who was an alternate captain for the Wolves in 2019-20. “We have a group chat, we try to talk in it as much as possible and guys still joke around. Even though they’re on different paths right now, they can still reach out, which is great. It’s kind of keeping the young guys together, too, guys who were in their first year last year. They’re trying to keep in touch with each other and keep that bond, because we are a group of brothers up there in the North.
“It’s tough, but we still come to each other for advice and support, which is definitely great.”