Bleak prospects of hockey return don’t sit well in province

While there hasn’t been any tried-and-true ‘official’ word handed down and anything could change or be altered by the decision makers, it’s looking more than likely that under the current COVID climate and the resulting restrictions, the game of hockey will be benched for the rest of the season.

Two weeks ago, the provincial government announced an extension of the existing public health orders that were first announced at the tail end of last year, which included the prohibition of team sports for the time being.  The disappointment and frustration shown by those deeply involved in hockey was swift and plentiful, with many sharing the belief that kids who play the game were being indirectly “punished” by the rising case numbers, as well as the actions of those such as anti-maskers and deniers of the pandemic.

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On January 14, the Saskatchewan Hockey Association (SHA) released a statement that pointed to the unlikelihood of a return to play.

“Yesterday, Wednesday, January 13, 2021, during a virtual call with all Provincial Sport Governing Bodies, Ken Dueck from the Provincial Government’s Business Response Team (BRT) announced that there would be no consideration of return to play (games) for at least four (4) weeks and that a return to game play is unlikely to happen before the end of March.

The current state of “training” with eight players 18 years of age and younger will continue.

This certainly was not the news that the SHA, nor all other winter sports was expecting. With the current rate of positive cases per 100,000 people placing Saskatchewan near the top in Canada, the likelihood of things changing before the end of March is looking bleak.

The SHA is currently reviewing the state of the game and intend on conducting Zone Meetings for MHA, Minor/Female/Senior Leagues within the next two weeks.

Please be aware that the landscape related to COVID-19 in the province can change at any time.”

Some dedicated hockey parents aren’t taking the news of a potentially forgotten season lightly.  An online petition at Change.org is demanding that the provincial government take action on allowing the sport to return, with the petition having reached its intended goal of over 10,000 signatures at the time of this writing.  Directed at Premier Scott Moe, the petition claims that 20,000 hockey families as well as communities and jobs are relying on an immediate and safe return, and it calls for leagues to be able to resume their seasons in February.

“Given the significant physical, mental and social health benefits hockey provides to youth in addition to the significant economic benefits communities derive from hockey we ask you to return Saskatchewan back to hockey and communicate to your residents,” the petition statement reads.  “The significant impact this is having on youth relating to their mental, physical and social wellbeing after nearly a full year of various degrees of lockdown and loss of activity and identity needs to culminate with a return in February.

Premier Moe has stated ‘We're not going to punish everyone for the actions of a few,’” the statement further reads.  “His refusal to shut down bars as he has with hockey has and does punish young athletes disproportionately. According to a recent survey by Hockey Canada 45% of parents are concerned about the mental well-being of athletes. There is in place a successful return phase in plan that worked prior to being shutdown in November 2020 which can be re-implemented with/out adjustments in conjunction with SJHL and SHA.”

The petition cites the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s upcoming return to play on February 10, urging for a return to the game in this province and stating that “multiple factors can be implemented to return safely.”

Those who have signed the petition were not afraid to share their views on the current state of the game.

“I fail to see the point in keeping children from playing when adults are firing up pro and junior hockey all over the country,” wrote Barry Knight of Kindersley.

“I believe play and sports are absolutely critical to a child's healthy development.  I believe the restriction on it will cause more harm than good,” wrote Allan Homann of Prince Albert.

“I’m a billet Mom who is witnessing the mental side effects cancelling a season has done.  You are quite literally inviting an entire generous to struggle with mental illness. Something your government already IGNORES currently,” wrote Cassandra Davis of Melfort.

“This sport, as well as others, can and will be able to function and yet maintain safety protocols with a little due diligence by everyone.  Competition cannot be replaced by the minimal measures of practice we are subjected to currently in such a small platform,” wrote Kirby Pankratz of Preeceville.

However, while the outcry from parents and others concerned over the absence of the game is admirable and passionate, other reports point out that research on air quality and a deeper understanding of how the virus spreads shed some light on why playing the sport in indoor rinks and arenas carries a substantial risk.

Last fall, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a Morbidity and Mortality Report about the dangers of contracting COVID-19 from playing hockey.  The report was based on an amateur hockey game in Tampa Bay played in June in which one infected player passed the disease on to 13 of the 22 other players who were on the ice with him, as well as to one rink attendant.

As well, studies on air quality targeted the exhaust produced from ice surfacing machinery such as Zambonis, in which it was discovered that older versions of the machines had internal combustion engines that polluted the air.  Cold air doesn’t rise, and the studies showed that polluted air tends to stay close to the ice level, even when there is building ventilation in an arena.

This same occurrence can also apply to air that has been contaminated with COVID-19, meaning just one infected player on the ice who is breathing hard due to physical activity can inadvertently spread it to their teammates who are exerting the same high levels of breathing, drawing in this potentially polluted air in and out.

The risk of COVID infection can be even higher in dressing rooms, and on the bench between shifts, where many players are often seen coughing or spitting.  As well, researchers say wearing full-length face visors that resemble those worn by medical personnel doesn’t completely solve the problem either, as the polluted air just goes around the visor.

Studies and research aside, the frustration on hockey’s absence is felt right here at home, where the sport is most definitely woven into our lives.

Rick Wagner, a hockey parent in Outlook who also holds coaching duties, says leagues should’ve been allowed to finish their seasons and wondered if a different approach to the game involving smaller numbers could’ve been an option to return.

“Definitely should have finished the season,” said Rick, contacting this reporter.  “They already wear masks to practice, why not give them a few games?  Just do a four-team mini league instead of going to every town.  Outlook, for instance, has three U-7 teams (Under 7).  The kids all go to the same school, just add one more team and we had our own little league.  Milden had a team that would have joined our mini league for U-7.  I know the older age groups only have one team, but still could have done a mini league, in my opinion.  It just sucks when you pay 500 bucks for your kid to play hockey and all they get to do is practice.”

The provincial government has said that the next slated review for the current COVID guidelines is scheduled for this Friday, January 29.  (NOTE:  Since the print publication of this article, the provincial government has announced that the existing restrictions and guidelines have been extended until February 19.)

Regardless of whether you’re a player, a parent, a spectator, or even just a casual observer, one cannot deny the closely-knit links between the sport of hockey and our way of life here in rural Saskatchewan.  As we move forward and vaccines begin to roll out in larger numbers for the general public, fanatics of the game are left to only hope that the familiar click-clack of sticks on the ice will be heard next season between teams just looking for some good old competition.

© The Outlook

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