It looks increasingly likely that there won't be any elite-level ice hockey in the United Kingdom until September 2021, with the Belfast Giants expecting to be told today that the 2020-21 Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL) season will be suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
While the season - which, under normal circumstances, would have started last weekend - will not be cancelled outright, leaving the possibility of playing a significantly shortened tournament starting in January or February, league sources have indicated that even that seems unlikely as teams struggle to deal with the impact of Covid-19.
This decision has long been rumoured, with teams - including the Giants - openly admitting they have encouraged their players to seek opportunities elsewhere due to the status of the league over recent months.
The EIHL cannot survive without the financial boost provided by fans in the stands, both from ticket and concession sales, due to a lack of a league sponsor and a significant TV broadcast deal, and league figures have indicated that clubs would require at least 80% capacity at games to remain viable, which is currently impossible due to restrictions on indoor gatherings imposed by the four local governments.
Teams are also concerned over their long-term stability should they sign players and then have to stop the season should there be a second nationwide lockdown, which has led to the owners making a unanimous decision not to proceed with December's rescheduled start date.
While several teams, including the Giants, are not closing the door altogether on the possibility of playing at the start of the new year if restrictions have been lifted significantly, most are taking a long-term view and have shifted focus to the 2021-22 season, which all 10 teams have committed to despite the hardships they have suffered during lockdown.
The hope was that by early 2021 the virus would have been contained enough to allow fans back into arenas and potentially allow interested teams to play either a shortened league or some form of cup competition, however league sources have suggested that is now being considered unlikely as governments continue to restrict mass gatherings.