The winter days are short but the months we’ve endured feel long. A new year brings hope and optimism, with 2021 being defined by the anticipation of the vaccine rollout.

Amidst the continued uncertainty, there’s a faint light flickering on the other side and it will start to shine brighter. Granted it may be tough to see with our ice times cancelled and gatherings restricted, but getting through these months ahead will bring renewed strength.

Our 2021 winter sports season may be a shortened one on the road back to ‘normalcy’. For some, perhaps no season at all. But as we’ve seen with professional sport, the abundance of caution and strict protocols has given way to the return to play. It has been no easy feat and far from what we were used to as leagues continue to navigate the safety of the athletes and all involved. But commitment has shown we can prevail.

While we may be sidelined momentarily from our own activities, as fans we remain faithful to the games we love. Sports has a strong power to unite, even when not in person, and live sports has brought a welcomed distraction and much needed entertainment.

The recently concluded World Junior Championship in Edmonton is a major accomplishment amid a global pandemic, demonstrating the collaboration, hard work and sacrifice adopted from the NHL playoff ‘bubble’ format the City used earlier in 2020. The tournament also offered that touch of ‘normalcy’ as Canadians eagerly await switching from festive sweaters to hockey jerseys before Christmas is over.

Not immune to the pandemic, the tournament began with a few hitches as some teams experienced staff and athletes who tested positive prior to or upon arrival but strict protocols ensured the bubble remained intact.

10 teams, 28 games played and one championship team declared. Perhaps not the conclusion Canadians had hoped for but a success no less. Overcoming the challenges that COVID-19 presented for running an international tournament calls for celebration. And as a nation dedicated to hockey we turned up to show our support. TSN reported overall tournament audiences were up 71 per cent through the semifinals compared to the 2020 tournament in Ostrava, Czech Republic, and 52 per cent higher through semifinals compared to the 2019 tournament in Vancouver.

The World Juniors not only filled the hockey void, it offered a preview of the NHL prospects. With the 2020-21 NHL regular season set to commence January 13, the league has once again shown innovation in order to continue.

31 teams have realigned in four new divisions, with one for the seven Canadian teams. Teams play a 56-game schedule with the top four teams in each division qualifying for the playoffs.

Already there is buzz about keeping the all Canadian division. There’s a lot at stake between these seven teams. There’s also a lot of talent on display. And while Canada has not had a Stanley Cup Champion since 1993, the playoffs mean at least one team will make it to the semifinals. Even if just for a year, this is truly unique for Canadian fans.

This year’s shortened NHL season will have a playoff feel from the get go. Teams will have to come out strong from the start and coaches will need to get creative when facing the same team more frequently, sometimes several games in a row. The temporary shakeup will contribute to new rivalries and intensify old ones. We are in for some exciting hockey!

Live sports are our connection back to play. Our path is not quite as clear but having hockey to watch keeps us bonded and part of that community. It provides entertainment and ritual, an escape from the every day. As professional athletes show their dedication to returning to play, they inspire us to do the same in a safe environment. They too have faced road blocks in resuming the game and remain diligent to the protocols set in place. There remain some challenging months ahead but in time we too will dust off the equipment and be back on the ice.