A season that started with such great promise for the Virden Oil Capitals has come to a premature end.
On Feb. 12, the Manitoba Junior Hockey League announced the cancellation of the remainder of the 2020-2021 season due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. The league had been paused since Manitoba went to Code Red on Nov. 12.
The Oil Capitals expressed appreciation for their fans, season ticket holders, partners, billets and volunteers for “standing by us through this unprecedented time.” Information with options for season ticket holders and business partners was to be sent out “in the coming days.”
With a squad of talented veterans and skilled newcomers, the Oil Capitals posted the MJHL’s best record – 8-0-1-0 with a .944 winning percentage – before the pause. Head coach Tyson Ramsey said he was “disappointed that we didn't get a chance to continue to build on our great start. I think this was a special group that was on the way to doing great things. Very unfortunate for all the players but my heart goes out to our 20-year-olds who had their junior careers come to an end this way. That is not fair.’
Netminder Kyle Kozma led the league with six wins, while Hunter Cloutier paced the MJHL with 17 points in nine games. Logan Rands was the league’s top scoring defenceman with eight points in as many games.
“I think this was the most talented group that I have had the opportunity to work with,” Ramsey said. “They are skilled and worked extremely hard each and every day. They were the closest group off the ice as well. I really wish we could have seen where we could have taken them this season.”
Co-captain Jack Einarson said he enjoyed being with this successful group.
“When you’re in a winning environment to go along with an already great group, it makes it even better,” he said.
20-year-olds’ careers end
Ramsey said his heart goes out to the team’s six players who will age out.
“The 20-year-old group was a special group,” Ramsey said. “They were great leaders and contributed in all situations. They took our younger guys in and made them feel welcome from the beginning of the season and they cared about each other. Not to mention that they put up a tremendous amount of offence that will be hard to replace. We will certainly miss them.”
That group includes Einarson and assistant captains Josh Belcher and Cloutier – who were all in their fourth season with the Oil Caps. As rookies, the trio helped the Virden franchise make it all of the way to the 2018 MJHL finals.
Co-captain Brett Paddock has played three seasons in Virden, as has Garrett Sambrook, who has also spent time with the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings and Swift Current Broncos. Assistant captain Owen Blocker was in his second season with the Oil Caps after WHL stints with the Broncos and Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Paddock said Ramsey informed the team on the evening of Feb. 11 of the season’s cancellation. He said it is going to be difficult to let this chapter of his life go.
“When I started in 2018, it was my first time leaving home, which was a nerve racking and overwhelming experience, but moving to a friendly town as Virden and living with an amazing family made everything so enjoyable,” he said “I’ve made so many memories that I will never forget and I’ve made friendships that will last a lifetime. It has been an amazing place to live and play for the past three years and I owe so many thanks to the people of Virden for letting it be that way.”
Trying to Stay on the Ice
Some members of the Oil Caps will get the opportunity to keep playing this season. As of Monday, Daemon Hunt, who was loaned to the team by the Western Hockey League’s Moose Jaw Warriors, had played three games with the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League. The Des Moines squad is the top farm team of the Minnesota Wild.
The WHL is looking to start its season this month. Some Oil Caps – including local products Grady Lane and Braeden Lewis of Virden and McAuley’s Jake Poole – could see time at the major junior level.
MJHL Commissioner Kevin Saurette said in a statement that “after multiple discussions with Public Health, representatives of the Provincial Government, facility managers and stakeholders, the MJHL Board of Governors have determined that the resumption and completion of the 2020-21 regular league/playoff season is not feasible due to current conditions.”
On its website, the Oil Capitals organization posted a statement that read in part:
“As an organization, we are extremely disappointed that the government would not allow our Return to Play Guidelines, which the league successfully implemented in the fall allowing us to begin our 2020/21 Season. The MJHL was a Return to Play leader in our province and beyond, as we operated successfully, while maintaining the health & safety of everyone involved.
“This unfortunate decision by the Provincial Government has taken the sport of hockey away from our youth in this Province. We certainly feel for our players, especially our 20-year-olds, who have seen their junior career come to an abrupt end.”