Kids have begun hitting the ice as minor hockey programs are restarting, but restrictions related to COVID-19 mean this season will be unlike any other.
“We’re back on the ice,” said Dave Christiansen, president of the Guelph Minor Hockey Association. “Our competitive program went back on the ice last week and our recreational program is back on the ice in the coming week. We have got all our ice booked.”
Most kids didn’t miss much ice time due to COVID-19 because the regular season had mostly wrapped up prior to the province closing down the rinks in March and the new season is starting close to its normal time.
“We kind of closed up shop only within a week or two weeks of the season ending,” said Christiansen. “The problem was we had a couple of teams that were going to the OMHA finals — which is a huge deal — and they couldn’t do it, so they awarded joint championship status to those teams that made it to the finals.”
To say this season will be different than others in the past is an understatement. For one, there are no tryouts and no teams.
“We are running a mainly development-based season this year,” said Christiansen. “We are trying to use this opportunity to put the players into cohorts by age group and by skill level and we are doing a lot of development with our technical director Chad Wiseman, assistant coach with the Guelph Storm.”
The focus this year, said Christiansen, is the health and safety of the players and ensuring the kids have fun with the game.
“We are trying to get them on the ice meeting their friends and then learning the game and having a chance to love the game,” he said.
Because there are different restrictions and possible lockdowns by health unit, players can only play scrimmages with others from within the Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph boundaries.
“We have Orangeville locally and Fergus. We can’t combine our leagues because they don’t have competitive levels all the way up to AAA,” said Christiansen.
Last week the Greater Toronto Hockey League was postponing all sanctioned activities until Jan. 1 due to a rapid rise in the infection rate in the Greater Toronto Area.
“That was a shock,” said Christiansen. “But at the same time the COVID situation in Toronto has required a little bit of a pullback.”
Christiansen said this becomes a challenge for players in the competitive program because they are not able to test their skills against players from other parts of the province.
“They are the kids who have a competitive edge, but they’re not able to travel to other cities or able to go to tournaments. It is all of that experience they are missing out on,” he said. “Technically there are no teams, there has been no tryouts. It’s been very hard on them, it really has. We are trying to give them as much normalcy as possible with the constraints we are under.”
One of the biggest changes for the older competitive teams are new rules against contact in a sport that usually has lots of bumping and bodychecking, vital skills if they are to continue their hockey careers.
“The city, local health authorities and university are expecting us to maintain social distancing at all times — on the bench and on the ice — it's proving to be a bit of a challenge," said Christiansen. "Some of the kids were looking forward to starting their bodychecking, but it's been put on hold for a year."
There are a lot of kids in the minor midget and midget age groups that are a little nervous about their draft years, said Christiansen, because there are no showcases and there are no opportunities for them to demonstrate themselves on the ice.
"From that perspective I think it has caused a bit of disruption,” he said.
The long list of new rules doesn’t just apply to the players.
“Simple things, like parents can’t bring a coffee to the rink. It’s a minor thing but it’s one of the new realities that we are living with,” said Christiansen.
Enrolment has been down about 10 to 15 per cent this year, which Christiansen said was not unexpected. Some families have decided to pass on the season due to health concerns within their own homes, while others have decided to focus on other sports for now.
The association has tried to meet some of the concerns of parents by running programming in eight-week blocks.
“So we can adjust it based on the realities of the local health situation and the rules that may or may not get put into place, also to give a bit of a cost break to parents so they are not having to pay for a whole year ahead and to give kids a chance to come back if they want to,” said Christiansen.
Parents have been very supportive through the process of starting the new season, he said.
“They have been very patient with us because they know there has been a lot of work to get this plan back in place,” said Christiansen. “The board has been outstanding — these people are working almost full time doing this and they are not getting paid for it. It’s been a very positive experience.”