Bruins react to the cancellation of the SJHL season

Six games.

That’s all that the Estevan Bruins and most of the other teams in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League played in the 2020-21 season.

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The SJHL season came to an end on March 22, when the Saskatchewan Health Authority denied the league’s bid to have a bubble in Weyburn that would have seen seven of the league’s 12 teams play an abbreviated schedule over several weeks.

Sask. Health cited COVID-19 spread with variants of concern as the reason.

The bubble would have been similar to the one that has been happening in Regina for the seven teams in the Western Hockey League’s East Division. Players and other people involved with the teams would have been limited to their hotel rooms and the arena where games are played.

Estevan was among the seven teams who agreed to be part of the bubble. The Weyburn Red Wings, Flin Flon Bombers, Kindersley Klippers, Melfort Mustangs, Humboldt Broncos and Nipawin Hawks were also committed.

The Battlefords North Stars, Yorkton Terriers, Notre Dame Hounds, La Ronge Ice Wolves and Melville Millionaires said no to participating.

Sask. Health had previously said no to the league resuming its season with teams playing at home, but with no fans in the stands.

Bruins head coach and general manager Jason Tatarnic, who was part of the league’s return to play committee, was surprised with the decision.

“We pretty much mimicked the Western Hockey League agreement,” said Tatarnic. “The only difference is we were in hotels instead of dorms.”

The league would have fully occupied one hotel, and left one floor open for the public in another. Tatarnic said it sounded like that was a sticking point for Sask. Health, but he believes it could have been quickly resolved.

“There might have been a few pieces that we had to fix in our proposal, but nothing major. Nothing we couldn’t have fixed,” he said.

The Health Authority did tell the SJHL that it could submit another proposal in two or three weeks, but the league felt it didn’t make sense due to timelines.

The return to play committee was an interesting process, Tatarnic said. They asked president Bill Chow a tonne of questions.

“You understand it’s not something that happens overnight. You have an appreciation for the process that Bill Chow had to go through.”

There was speculation early on that Estevan would be a hub city instead of Weyburn. The local business community was very supportive of the concept.

“It was great to see how passionate the business community is here. That was an eye-opener, that’s for sure.”

It was going to cost more than $70,000 per team to have a hub city, but that was before player contributions. There would have been a 50-50 split between teams and players.

Tatarnic suspects that timing of the surge in variant cases was a factor in Sask. Health’s decision. After several weeks of low case counts, the South East sub-zone that includes Weyburn has seen a recent increase in cases, including some variant cases.

The players would have faced a stringent quarantine schedule. Many had already been isolating at home in the hopes the SJHL bubble format would be approved.

When they arrived at the hub centre, they were to be tested. And after they went to their room to isolate for five days, they would be tested again.

“Once they received a second negative test, we could practise. And then after we go through the practice stage, and we would be tested again after six days. And then after you received a negative test, you could go into the competition stage.”

The league respected everyone’s decision whether to be part of the hub. If there was a positive case in the practice stage or the competition stage, the team would have to quarantine for 14 days, forcing them to miss two weeks of games or nearly half the competition.

“There was some possible scenarios that could pop up and be pretty impactful on your financial situation going into it.”

For the team’s 20-year-old players – defencemen Austin King-Cunningham, Devan Harrison and Kade McMillen, and forwards Eddie Gallagher, Ryder Pierson and Tanner Mortenson – it was particularly tough to have a six-game season with no playoffs. They didn’t have closure for their junior hockey career.

Pierson, an Estevan product who spent all three years of his junior hockey career in the Energy City, said he wasn’t surprised with the decision by Sask. Health.

“As it kept dragging on, I think everybody’s hopes started to get less and less as it kept on going. But it’s definitely still a shock when you get the official word that you won’t be going.”

The players had been doing what they could to be ready for the start of the season, by spending time with just their families and their close contacts. Pierson was ready to go into the bubble.

“I think everybody did the best they could. You can only put your life on pause for so long, but everybody was doing everything possible that they could to be ready to go if we got the go-ahead.”

He says it seems like yesterday that he arrived at the Bruins fall training camp in 2018, doing everything he could to make the team. The team’s thrilling overtime win over the Humboldt Broncos in Game 7 of the SJHL quarter-final series in 2018 was the highlight of his time with the club.

A sold-out crowd of 2,662 fans attended the game at Affinity Place.

Pierson is looking forward to going to the school and beginning his life after hockey. He hopes to attend the University of Saskatchewan.

Now the Bruins attention will turn towards the 2021-22 season and the 2022 Centennial Cup national junior A hockey championship, sponsored by Tim Hortons, which is slated to be in Estevan. The 2021 tournament, slated for Penticton, B.C., has been cancelled. Hockey Canada has yet to officially update the status of the 2022 tournament.

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