Hockey Canada allowing regional members to make final return-to-play decisions

Daily Herald File Photo Members of the Prince Albert Lehner Electric Foxes and the Sherwood Park Fuzion female Midget AA teams chase after the puck during a game at the Kinsmen Arena in January.

Although there is still a long way to go before hockey players hit the ice in arenas across the country, Hockey Canada has started the process to get play back underway.

As part of their Return to Hockey initiative, Hockey Canada announced on Thursday that it will allow each of its 13 regional members to have the opportunity to work with authorities in their respective regions to determine when it is safe to return to the ice in areas that fall under their jurisdiction. 

“We expect the timing of each member’s return to hockey will be different, but will be based on the advice of their government and public health authority,” Hockey Canada said in a statement on behalf of chief executive officer Tom Renney, along with president and chief operating officer Scott Smith.

“It is imperative to note that we are not ready to return to the game across the country. As we have seen in respect to flattening the curve, the impact of the pandemic varies from region to region. Permitting our members the opportunity to decide on an appropriate return-to-hockey timeline will allow them to work directly with public health authorities to determine when it is safe to return while also implementing specific safety measures and rules within their associations and leagues.”

The Saskatchewan Hockey Association said on Twitter that they are preparing for when the government and health authority restrictions are lifted to allow rinks and recreation facilities to reopen, with more details on their plan coming soon.

“It’s a positive first step, but this is not the be-all and end-all,” SHA general manager Kelly McClintock said. “There’s still a lot of work to do and we are asking people to be patient as we move forward.

“This doesn’t mean that we can just start to sanction hockey events tomorrow. We don’t know what the guidelines are going to be for arenas yet and there are other things that we hope to have a better understanding of so that we can inform our members of what the requirements are as we go forward.”

On the local scene, Prince Albert Minor Hockey has already started some of their plans for the 2020-21 season, as they opened up their online registration last week.

“We still had to do everything that we would be doing at the end of the season, such as taking care of last year’s finances and ordering new jerseys,” PA Minor Hockey technical director James Mays said. “We’ve also been in constant contact with the SHA about what we will be doing. We’re currently set for a regular start time of early September for tryouts, but things may be different as we go forward.

“I think the announcement that Hockey Canada made to allow each branch to handle their own affairs makes total sense, especially as things are different across the country with COVID-19. There have been thousands of cases in Ontario and Quebec, while the Maritime provinces haven’t had a lot.”

Unlike other sports that will have shortened campaigns or none at all due to the pandemic, time is on the side for those involved in hockey.

“We obviously didn’t get to finish out the 2019-20 season, but things would have been worse had the pandemic occurred in October for example,” McClintock said. “I feel bad for everyone who is involved with spring and summer sports, as this couldn’t have happened at a worse time for them.

“We’re still three months away from when everything starts and I’ve been telling our members that if things are going good and we could see hockey looking somewhat normal this year. However, what happens if there is an outbreak somewhere in the province in November? We have to be flexible, patient, accountable and sympathetic as we try to ensure that things resemble what they have looked like in the past.”

Hockey Canada’s announcement will also play a role for when Junior A hockey leagues, such as the 12-team Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, will return to action. 

“The CJHL (Canadian Junior Hockey League) works as one body and we’ve been having two to three hour Zoom calls to discuss what needs to be worked on and what needs to get done,” SJHL president Bill Chow said. 

“That being said, different areas of the country are in different phases of the virus. As a result, I think you are going to see a lot of different start dates for when each of the 10 leagues are going to start up.”

Like PA Minor Hockey, the SJHL has also kept busy with their plans for the 2020-21 season, as they are hosing their Bantam Draft on Friday.

“We’re doing a lot more of the pre-season plans remotely now, which is out of the norm for us,” Chow said. “Everything opened up on Monday in regards to players being registered on the Hockey Canada website, so it’s business as usual for us in that regard.

“When it comes to putting the schedule together for next season, that has been postponed for a bit as we’re hoping to have a clearer picture of what things will be like a month from now. That can always change too if we see an increase in COVID-19 cases, so hopefully everyone keeps doing what they are doing in terms of social distancing and with washing their hands.”

Meanwhile, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League announced on Tuesday that they are planning to start a full 68-game schedule on Oct. 1.

QMJHL commissioner Gilles Courteau said during a press conference that the league is finalizing their return-to-play plans and that each of their 18 teams will have a ‘certain amount of spectators in the stands.’

The Ontario Hockey League and the Western Hockey League have yet to make announcements about their plans for the 2020-21 campaign. 

The Canadian Hockey League has been loosely affiliated with Hockey Canada since 1980 and does not fall under their Return to Hockey initiative.