Junior hockey’s greatest what if

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald Brayden Watts of the Prince Albert Raiders and Brett Davis of the Lethbridge Hurricanes are among many players who saw their final WHL season come to an early end due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The end of the 2019-20 campaign leads to a bevy of questions that will remain unanswered

This is usually one of the most exciting times of the year for a hockey fan.

The three major junior leagues would be getting ready to start their post-seasons, the majority of Junior A circuits would have reached the semifinal rounds in their playoffs and the NCAA’s Frozen Four tournament would be on the verge of getting underway over the weekend.

Instead, the 2019-20 seasons have officially come to an end, with the final domino falling on Monday with the cancellation of the Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Western Hockey League seasons and this year’s Memorial Cup.

Given the current situation that we are all facing, sports may not be the event that is at the forefront of people’s minds, which is how it should be.

However, if you are a sports junkie right now, the early end to this season has resulted in what might end up being the greatest what if discussion of all time.

Who was going to win each of the three CHL leagues and hoist the Memorial Cup?

The way that the WHL campaign, this year’s post-season was set to be a knock-down drag-out affair with almost everyone that was going to make the playoffs having a viable case to win the league title.

Heck, the Eastern Conference was looking like a crapshoot.

Sure, the Edmonton Oil Kings were set to have home ice advantage through the first three rounds, but they would more than likely been forced to deal with a high-octane Medicine Hat Tigers offence or a Lethbridge Hurricanes side that featured Dylan Cozens in the quarter-final.

Plus, the Tigers and Hurricanes series had the chance to be an all-timer, especially given their rivalry over the years.

On the other side of the bracket, the Prince Albert Raiders, Brandon Wheat Kings, Winnipeg Ice, Calgary Hitmen and Saskatoon Blades had still yet to figure out their playoff seeding.

It looked like the defending league champion Raiders were going to face a veteran Hitmen side, but there was still a chance of an opening round rendezvous with the archrival Blades.

A Max Paddock vs. Nolan Maier goaltending matchup? I’ll take that all day and every day.

Plus, the first ever battle of Manitoba seemed on the cards between the Ice and the Wheat Kings, which could have seen the return of Connor McClennon and the Ice possibly unleashing Matthew Savoie to an unsuspecting audience.

Alas, we’ll have to wait until next year for that to take place.

Out in the Western Conference, the Kamloops Blazers won’t know how their best season in nearly a decade would have ended up as they had a legit chance to return to the league final after many years in the wilderness.

Plus, they were looking likely to face the Memorial Cup host Kelowna Rockets, which could have led to all sorts of conjecture if they were to crash out at the first hurdle following a lackluster second half.

The Victoria Royals, who went all in at the deadline by acquiring Brayden Tracey, were set to square off with last year’s runner-up Vancouver Giants in the first round, which could have been an intriguing matchup given how many veterans both sides had.

The U.S. Division was still up for grabs between the Portland Winterhawks and the Everett Silvertips, with the runner-up having to face a white-hot Spokane Chiefs side that was on a 10-game win streak when the season came to a halt.

The bevy of storylines wasn’t just limited to the WHL, however, as the other two leagues were super intriguing.

The Ottawa 67’s had been the class of the OHL for most of the campaign, and were my pick to win the Memorial Cup when the season started, but a case could have been made for up to eight teams to earn a ticket to Kelowna in May.

The Peterborough Petes, Oshawa Generals and Sudbury Wolves were the 67’s closest challengers in the Eastern Conference, while the Western Conference was a complete tossup between the London Knights, Saginaw Spirit, Flint Firebirds and Kitchener Rangers.

Heck, there was a good chance we could have had a tiebreaker game for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference between the Kingston Frontenacs and the Niagara IceDogs. Who wouldn’t want to have seen that?

The Sherbrooke Phoenix seemed likely to earn a spot in the QMJHL final for the first time, but their opponent was anyone’s guess as the Moncton Wildcats and Chicoutimi Sagueneens were battling it out in the Eastern Conference.

Plus, there was that Rimouski Oceanic team with some guy named Alexis Lafreniere in their lineup. I heard he’s decent at hockey.

Although the lack of a champion will lead to discussions for years to come over who could have won it all, the biggest bummer out of all this is that fans didn’t get to give proper goodbyes to their teams’ overagers.

Zack Hayes, Brayden Watts and Jeremy Masella didn’t get one last salute from the Art Hauser Centre faithful, while former Raiders blueliner Max Martin and Prince Albert product Riley Sawchuk weren’t able to complete their last run at a league championship with the Blazers and the Oil Kings respectively.

It’s not just those guys, however, as 2000-born players like Ty Smith and Nolan Foote are set to turn pro, while 2001’s such as Bowen Byram and Dylan Cozens could make the jump to the NHL next year.

To all of those players who won’t be back, thanks for all of the excitement you’ve given us over the last few seasons.

I look forward to seeing what you do in the future, no matter where you end up.