Drop the puck already. With some fans present

Normally this would be the time of year in which I’d be stoked for local hockey to start.

The Estevan Bruins would be coming off their first games of the season, or getting ready for their opening games. Minor hockey age rep. teams would be holding tryouts. House league teams would be getting ready for the season to start. 

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And this year was to have even more excitement with the inaugural season for the Eclipse Downhole Solutions Estevan U18 AAA Bears. 

Obviously, this year isn’t a normal year. We don’t know when hockey season is going to begin. We’re confident there will be a season.

As Saskatchewan Hockey Association president Kelly McClintock pointed out recently, there are a lot of things that need to be worked out before a season starts.  

But the Manitoba Junior Hockey League just announced they’ll begin play on Oct. 9. That was the date the SJHL had hoped to start, but that now seems unlikely. I don’t know why Manitoba can start in three weeks and we’ll be waiting indefinitely. 

For the longest time, Manitoba was doing as good of job as anyone in North America when it came to COVID-19 cases, but those days are over, and their caseload is more in line with what you would expect from a Canadian province with 1.2 million people.

Is their government more progressive than ours? I doubt it. Are their health officials more permissive? Is their league or hockey association better run? Again, unlikely. So for whatever reason, the Manitoba league will be starting Oct. 9, and the Saskatchewan league will be waiting. 

Granted, the Manitoba league’s season will be different than what people are used to. It’ll be a shorter season with just weekend games, and reduced travel and fewer non-division games. But at least fans in those communities get to watch good junior hockey.

The B.C. Hockey League, meanwhile, hopes to start their season on Dec. 1. Not sure why they have to wait. Is it because of all of the yahoos out there who have been holding mass gatherings and leading to the spread of a potentially dangerous virus? Ah, for the days when B.C. was doing a really great job in keeping COVID numbers low. 

When hockey games do begin out here, we’ll need to find a balance. Get the protocols in place. Establish a start time for the season. And determine how you can have a reasonable number of fans in the stands.

This is not a call to have business as normal at arenas. We’ve done a great job of keeping our numbers low. Thirteen cases of COVID-19 in six months in southeast Saskatchewan is a testament to us being smart, especially early in the pandemic.

If we decide to allow Affinity Place to be at full capacity each night right away, we aren’t going to be in great shape for long. You will get a surge in cases, and it won’t just be hockey fans who get sick.

But what’s wrong with 650 fans in an arena that seats 2,662? With the design of the arena bowl, the amount of standing room spots, and the elevated boxes, you can have a decent crowd that’s social distanced and still enjoying the game. You might not get to sit or stand in your usual spot, and you won’t have 10 fans in a private box, but you can still have a crowd that would be close to what the Bruins would attract for a game against the Notre Dame Hounds on a Tuesday night.

(Other teams in the SJHL won’t be able to do 600 fans, because they don’t have the size of the venue. That’s definitely an issue that will have to be addressed). 

You can’t try to force an SJHL team to operate with 150 fans per night. It’s not feasible. If 150 fans is the limit, then these non-profit, community-owned teams will need a lot of government support to stay afloat.  

If you’re hoping to have 1,200 fans for a Dec. 30 game against the Weyburn Red Wings, that’s likely still asking too much. 

But it’s time to get moving on things, to get a schedule in place and to get the games going. Not just on the ice. On basketball and volleyball courts, on football fields, in pools, and on curling ice. These sports can happen while being smart and responsible and while adapting to the current times.

There’s so many people out there who need this to happen: parents, kids, coaches, officials, volunteers and fans. It’s time.  

© Copyright Estevan Mercury

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