Minor hockey associations across Canada adapt season to COVID-19 reality

Communication, flexibility, and vigilance have become the watchwords for organizers of minor hockey heading into the new season.

All three are needed as minor hockey associations across Canada try to get kids on the ice while keeping the players, coaches, and volunteers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Phillip McKee, the executive director of the Ontario Hockey Federation, said that this season is all about engaging children mentally and physically.

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"This year's not about competition," said McKee last week. "Hopefully we'll get to a traditional hockey season but right now it's about getting kids on the ice, their development, and having fun."

Most minor hockey associations in Canada are now relying on a 50-player cohort, which means two teams of approximately 25 that practise together that are then split in half for play, essentially creating a four-team house league. This means fewer people at the rink and more space on the bench.

The rules of play have also been tweaked in an attempt to avoid face-to-face interactions where the novel coronavirus is most easily spread. That means no intentional physical contact like bodychecking or fighting and play will be three-on-three or four-on-four, with a continuous flow off the bench to keep players away from each other.

Faceoffs have also been eliminated from most leagues, as it brings players — and officials — face to face.

"The key here is skill development, skill development, skill development," said McKee. "It's not a bad thing for any kid to experience that.

"They're going to grow more, they're going to have more touches, more experiences, than they would in a game situation because they're going to be active the entire time."

Even with those new rules and regulations, the Greater Toronto Hockey League, Canada's largest minor hockey association, announced on Saturday that it would postpone all sanctioned activity until at least January.

The GTHL, which serves Toronto and neighbouring municipalities Markham, Mississauga, and Vaughan, made the decision after two of the leagues under its umbrella announced the suspension of play earlier in September.

"The GTHL Board and its members understood that in the current environment, there could be times that we may have to step backwards in order to ensure the safety and well-being of players, families and the community" said Scott Oakman, the GTHL's executive director and chief operating officer, in a statement on Saturday. "Now is clearly the time to do that."

Ontario reported 615 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, with 289 cases in Toronto and 88 in the Region of Peel — which includes Mississauga. Health Minister Christine Elliott said that 58 per cent of those cases are in people under the age of 40.

As each province deals with COVID-19 in a different way, every minor hockey association has come up with different solutions, blending guidelines from Hockey Canada and local public health authorities.

Organizers understand the concerns of parents and volunteers about the safety of their children, but Rob Litwinski, the CEO of Hockey Alberta, said every precaution is being taken.

"I'm a parent, I'm a customer in the game as well, I have a boy that's still in the game," said Litwinski, who added Hockey Alberta has worked for months at communicating with parents so they can make informed decisions for their children. "I think all of us as parents have to take all that information and make the best decision you can and our job is to make sure we've provided that for people."

The season, such as it is, has already begun in Saskatchewan. Kelly McClintock, general manager for the Saskatchewan Hockey Association, said that his organization is "in practice mode" with no games being played yet.

He added that the pandemic has seemingly had a surprising effect on enrolment.

"The majority of our members say that their membership isn't going down, in some cases it's even going up because people want to get their kids in activities," said McClintock. "They've got nothing more than hockey to do."

Depending on the region, weather conditions, and how the ever-changing situation with COVID-19 evolves, playing hockey outdoors remains a possibility. Representatives from Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia all said it was an option they would explore, if necessary.

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