Hockey Canada has “released the hounds” by announcing today that each of the 13 member associations across the country, including Hockey Manitoba, will be able to determine their return to play time tables on an individual basis.
Amateur hockey was shut down in this country on the early evening of March 12 and there have been no sanctioned activities since.
In a news release, Hockey Canada said this decision was made following ongoing discussions with the board of directors, Canada’s chief medical officer, the 13 member associations, and public health authorities across the country.
Hockey Manitoba Executive Director Peter Woods was part of that discussion process. Now he said that Hockey Manitoba is setting up a timeline that could see a potential return to play in September — at least in Manitoba.
“Each branch and each province has been recovering at a different pace. Originally, the plan was when we shut down collectively, that we were going to return collectively,” Woods said.
“But some of the members felt it was a little bit unfair that some branches are recovering at a quicker response time than some of the others. So it only makes sense that we would move forward at our own pace and the one that recovered last wouldn’t be holding up the rest of the country.”
Woods says competitive balance is always part of the equation, and in terms of flattening the coronavirus COVID-19 curve, Manitoba is certainly at or near the top of the list of the 13 Hockey Canada member associations in terms of preparing a return-to-play document and being in a position to start the 2020-21 season.
“I was involved with the Hockey Canada Safety Guidelines Committee task force, so we’ve been working with that collectively for about three weeks,” said Woods.
“We were waiting for Hockey Canada before Hockey Manitoba introduced our return-to-play policy. We still have lots of time. Our plan now is to put that together over the coming weeks and have something available that we can present to the provincial government, Sport Manitoba and health authorities by mid- to-late-June.”
Woods says there’s no need to start from scratch with information readily available from other sports groups and Manitoba businesses who already have, or are going through the process of returning to play or reopening. But what does concern Woods is navigating the challenges of multi-use facilities.
“Ball Hockey, Figure Skating, Speed Skating, Sledge Hockey and all kinds of recreational groups. So it’s important that all those members adhere to the protocols that are established by provincial government and health authorities so it doesn’t handicap anyone else. It would be disappointing that if someone is in breach of their social distancing and protocols that are put in place, that could impact the facility through suspensions or fines or closing down the facility, which would impact us all.”
Woods is confident there wouldn’t be much of a turn around time required from the Manitoba government for approval of a return-to-play document and is hopeful that process would be completed at some point in July and give the various leagues and organizers enough time for a September launch of their programs.
But as things stand right now, the Canada-US border will remain closed until June 21. And until there is a further easing of restrictions, even inter-provincially, anybody re-entering Manitoba has to self-isolate for 14 days. So at some point, the subject of out-of-province travel will have to be addressed.
“We have four programs that are national programs which would be the Telus, the Esso, the Allen Cup and the Centennial Cup, for juniors, seniors and our U18 programs for male and female. Those are the ones that could be impacted and would restrict our competition within Manitoba only for the end of season playoffs. But the other groups would be unaffected by that and would run a full program with all our members staying within the branch.”
Woods says the real challenge will begin when travel restrictions are lifted for commercial flights, and when ground transportation will open up for vehicles coming in and out of Manitoba. There is also the threat of a second wave of the virus at some point this winter which has been predicted by many health experts.
And that all lends itself to the uncertainty that has gripped the globe for the past two-and-a-half months, and what effect that might have on registration numbers for the coming season. Wood says a survey was sent out recently to Hockey Manitoba membership group, and the feedback received was that this coming winter will be, for the most part, business as usual.
“I think you can look at it two ways. You know that because the season ended so abruptly, people will be looking forward to returning to the game as soon as they possibly can. But I think if we ensure that we’ve always put the safety and the well-being and the health of our members first, I see no reason why our membership numbers will be impacted.”