As Saskatchewan continues to re-open and students return to the classroom in September, the “new normal” is going to look different. It may not include full competition in the vast majority of sports, both inside and outside of school.
With hockey being the most prominent sport in Canada, as fall approaches, communities throughout the country are preparing to open their ice rinks. The question remains, how plausible is it that competitive hockey can return with the COVID-19 pandemic still active?
In mid-August the Saskatchewan Hockey Association (SHA) released their preliminary Return to Hockey Plan for the fall that was worked on with both the provincial government and the Saskatchewan Health Authority. Currently the Government of Saskatchewan and Saskatchewan Health Authority are not prepared to provide a set date for when the SHA can play games of any kind.
The SHA stresses that no games can be played at this time, for any level, but registration and tryouts can take place, teams can be formed, and practice is allowed.
In Estevan, the Estevan Bruins started their extended training camp on Tuesday, with players skating each day so they will be ready when the season begins. The new Estevan Eclipse Downhole Solutions U18 AAA Bears held their inaugural fall camp in August.
Other age rep teams will be having tryouts this month.
Tournaments, out-of-province travel, and games of any kind are not sanctioned by the SHA at this time. This applies to minor, junior, and senior hockey.
Minor hockey will be in an identification and training phase for the time being. Once teams are formed, they are restricted to practise together. The SHA has restricted minor hockey to a 50-person limit within facilities for mini-leagues. A total of 30 individuals within the 50 can participate in one ice session at a time.
“The 50-person maximum per mini-league includes coaches/staff, instructors, participants from multiple teams, officials and volunteers who cannot maintain two meters of distancing from others at all times,” said SHA GM Kelly McClintock. “Spectators, including parents, who are not part of a previously listed category, and others who can ensure physical distancing are not included in the 50-person total.
“Organizers must keep a record of attendees,” he said. “All players, spectators, staff, and volunteers should be provided with a sign-in on arrival option, with name, phone number and/or email to facilitate contact tracing, if necessary. Records of attendance must be retained for a minimum of one month. Where possible, do not use a common pen. Providing this information is voluntary for attendees and can only be used for the purposes of Covid-19 contact tracing.”
Until there’s a clear idea from the government and Sask Health of when competitive hockey can return, McClintock says the SHA is in a tough situation and can only allow for practices that follow the protocol within communities and can’t give much of an idea for when games can begin.
“It’s been a little difficult because we haven’t had any real certainty of things from the provincial government and Sask Health,” he said. “We’ve been waiting and waiting and we put together a best and worst case scenario for them. We told them we wanted hockey to start like normal and have our tryouts and get into a training phase until we can start games. We gave them some dates for when we would like to start games, but they aren’t prepared to set a hard and fast date for us at this time to start games.
“With our plan, we wanted to let communities to know what to plan for so they’d know what to do with their rinks. A lot of communities still aren’t sure if they want to open their rinks. I told them we needed to give people in hockey some hope, especially when we’ve got 197 minor hockey associations. It’s impacting a lot of communities so we needed to get something out. There’s still a lot of people that have anxiety about when we’ll start games and if we’ll be able to play tournaments. I’m telling people not to worry about that, the likelihood of a tournament is probably non-existent. Specific to a border community like Moosomin, they don’t allow travel outside of the province and that puts any border community in a difficult spot. It’s a really tough situation for them trying to create guidelines for all different sports.”
Even though there’s no dates set for games, McClintock says the SHA has the time to wait and see how things play out and if the season needs to be delayed and extended that’s not something that would be detrimental to the season.
“The majority of our membership is under seven, under nine, under 11,” he said. “Under our rules under seven can’t play games until December 1 anyway, and under nine and under 11 can’t play games until November 15. We’ve already implemented that for those ages, frontloading the season with development, skills, and skating, and back loading them with games. For those age groups, if we can start by November 15 it won’t impact them at all and that’s a positive thing from a development standpoint.
“I’ve also always personally felt we start playing games way too early and maybe this can be a season for older age groups where we can spend some time practising at the start of the year and maybe extend the season until the end of March instead of having leagues done the first week of February. You can’t make a schedule now, but when you can, why not make sure you’re using the rink until the end of March.
“I really believe the government wants to see how school goes for a few weeks and see what things will be like and if we can get games going by November 15 or December 1, we still have three months if you play until the end of March,” he said. “For higher level teams in AA or AAA, then you can play until the end of April. We can just extend our leagues if we don’t have national or regional play.”
McClintock is less concerned about the actual hockey season at this point and more so with the ripple effect the changes could have for hockey in smaller communities throughout Saskatchewan.
“The only difference from a normal season is it’s just no games for the time being,” he said. “Let’s say we can get started by November or December, hopefully by February we’ve got this under control. In that case the hockey season will look different, but it will still be a season.
“The biggest challenge will really be for towns and villages, opening the rink, having limited opportunities for lots of games so your kitchen isn’t doing well, and if the kitchen isn’t making revenue then how do you pay your bills? That becomes the challenge.
“How much extra cleaning will rinks need? Will it impact scheduling? If rinks are allowing people in then more cleaning is needed. If typically it’s one person running the Zamboni with cleaning in-between, then rinks may need to hire another person or find volunteers for cleaning. Do rinks have the money to buy the extra cleaning supplies? There’s all that logistical, behind-the-scenes stuff that people in hockey don’t necessarily think about.
“Some of the rinks that have been running for three or four months still aren’t allowing kids to dress in dressing rooms—even though you’re allowed to—because that’s added manpower and cleaning supplies,” he said. “With summer weather you can go dress in the parking lot. When it gets into October and November, it’s a different situation. How does that impact scheduling? Do you have to have half an hour between ice times? If you can only afford one person, that person can’t do everything. I’ve been in the Moosomin rink, if the guy’s riding the Zamboni and there’s still the limits we have, will the town allow anybody into the lobby? And how many people? As soon as the ice times done, do those people need to get out before the other people can come in? Who will clean in-between? And if you let them into the stands, now you’ve got to clean the stands and you’ve got to clean the dressing rooms. It piles up and there’s still so many questions. There’s a lot of logistics that I don’t think a lot of people have taken into account.”